The Poem

“Ajanta” is a long poem written in five subtitled parts: “The Journey,” “The Cave,” “Les Tendresses Bestiales,” “Black Blood,” and “The Broken World.” The poem, written in free verse, is given form by the progression of the journey it describes, in which the poet goes into herself in search of a sense of the unity of life. It is an exploration of her spirit, mind, and body.

“Ajanta” is named for the great painted caves in India, famous for their magnificent religious frescoes painted by Buddhist monks. Muriel Rukeyser uses this setting in her poem to suggest the sacredness of her own interior places, her Ajanta, both psychic and physical. The figures of gods, men, and animals in the poem are accurate descriptions of the caves’ artwork.

Part I provides an emotional setting for the poem; it also describes Rukeyser’s life in the midst of war and annihilation (the poem was written during World War II). The poet, in her “full youth,” wants “my fullness and not a field of war” and sets out on a journey “to the midnight cave.” Profoundly disturbed to be living in a world that “considered annihilation,” a world with “the dead boiling up in the ground,” the poet resolves to travel alone to find “This cave where the myth enters the heart again.” The “myth” is, in a sense, herself.

Actually, the cave is a metaphor for the place within, where she can evaluate experience and be at peace with herself. Although the frustrations and upheaval of war are almost overwhelming (“All the way to the cave, the teeming forms of death”), she makes the “expiation journey” alone. It is her solitary quest to make amends, perhaps, for what she feels is her inability to prevent the dying happening or her inability to rechannel her frustration over the war. On the way, she performs a private ritual: “I blessed my heart . . ./ For it had never been unable to suffer.” The blessing is both a talisman for safekeeping and confession of her own frustration with life. To free herself from this debilitating state, the poet seeks to know herself and find possibilities of renewal.

In part 1, the star under which she travels is called “Wormwood.” The wormwood plant, which contains a bitter oil used to make absinthe (a nineteenth century drink so strong it was purported to cause forgetfulness and hallucinations), has been associated by name with any unpleasant or mortifying experience. The war’s profound effect on the poet’s psyche is emphasized by the name Wormwood, but her belief in the vitalizing natural rhythms of the body is also alluded to: Wormwood was used in plant lore as an aphrodisiac.

Part 2, “The Cave,” begins with a description of the cave, a description both literal and metaphorical. The “interlaced gods, animals, and men,” religious representations painted on the walls, suggest the interconnectedness or vital union of things in a peaceful world. Because union is what the poet seeks in herself,...

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Forms and Devices

Rukeyser’s energetic experiments in poetry were considered by many critics of the 1940’s and 1950’s to be loose in form and disorganized. During that time, traditional prosodic forms were more acceptable to many poets and critics, but Rukeyser was more interested in a poetry in which the material could generate its own form. She did not believe in grafting predetermined structures, such as metered patterns, onto her experiences for the sake of technical unity.

She seeks to convey the wholeness of experience. Thus, in “Ajanta,” as many critics did not recognize, the sexual images not only serve as thematic unifiers but also help to weave the structural fabric of the poem. In “Ajanta,” and many of the poems in Beast in View, sex becomes an organizing force as Rukeyser attempts to reproduce in language and sound and rhythm the rhythms of the body. She later praised Walt Whitman’s poetry, in which “physical rhythms are the base of every clear line.He remembered his body as other poets of his time remembered English verse.” Such rhythms in “Ajanta” are especially apparent in the last ten lines of part 2, “The Cave,” and in the “Animals arrive” sequence in part 5, “The Broken World.” At the poem’s climax, the rhythm suggests one trying to catch her breath, then slowly relaxing as the feverish pace calms toward the last line of the poem.

“Ajanta” conveys the force of sexual impulse—the need and...

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Ciardi, John. Mid-Century American Poets. New York: Twayne, 1950.

Herzog, Anne F., and Janet E. Kaufman, eds. How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet? The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Kertesz, Louise. The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Moss, Howard. The Poet’s Story. New York: Macmillan, 1973.