Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1232
“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, these figures provide for her evidence that serenity is possible in a chaotic world: “The figures hold their peace/ In a web of movement.”
The artwork at the Ajanta caves has been described as overwhelming; in the poem, the descriptive onslaught of things—earth, crystal, water, “pillars and prisms,” riders, horses, and “Red Cowrunning through the world”—overwhelms the reader. The cave is a place of intense feeling and emotion.
In the cave, where “the world comes forward in flaming sequences,” the poet-traveler possesses her world at its most fulfilling:
There is no frustrationEvery gesture is taken, everything yields connectionWater to sound, fire to form, life flickersUncounted into the supple arms of love.
The unity she attempts to describe is conveyed in sexual images, but transcends the sexual; it cannot be confined to “the spaces of the body,” which are “suddenly limitless.” The idea of union, however, is best conveyed in the imagery of the body and its physical rhythms. The last ten lines of “The Cave” are an energetic and sensuous evocation of the life force consecrating itself: physical action transformed into timeless, boundless energy “in the web of time.”
Part 3, “Les Tendresses Bestiales” (brutish caresses), describes a return to frustration (part of life’s rhythm). Rukeyser examines her reaction to the frustration of lost love, one who has died, presumably in the war. The sequence is written from the perspective of a mariner on the water, peering at the sky to chart the way. She sees the constellations reconfigure to form a “body shining.”
The images come into port next: the dark streets, the faceless whore, the whispering “checkered men,” “The dice and the alcohol and the destruction,” and finally the “Broken bottle of loss” are images of squandering and despair. Unchecked, these impulses can lead to self-destruction—“the glass/ turned bloody into the face.”
She compares dealing with her emotions to trying to keep a ship’s wheel steady in a storm: Losing control of the wheel as “the wave turns,” she sees “the world bearing my grave,/ And your eyes open in earth.” The loss of her love is still very vivid. In deep mourning, the poet envisions the world as a hostile place and finds herself sinking into it. Her search for “the midnight cave”—her place of healing—becomes more urgent than ever.
“Black Blood,” part 4, is a brief and mysterious interlude in the poem. Her attempt to return to the cave pauses at a deserted harbor, a sinister place where a “woman laced into a harp/ screams and screams” (the poet unable to sing her song?) and “The Floating Man” (the moon?) “rides on the ragged sunset.” Still grieving for her love and the world’s destruction, the poet realizes that her “armored ghost of rage” is “powerless” and so implores: “touch my blood again.” This request shaken out of sorrow is a turning point in her journey back to harmony. The advice coming from her innermost voice to “Try to live as if there were a God” is cautious and ironic, but nevertheless more hopeful than her previous state of mind.
The final part of the poem, “The Broken World,” is a return to the cave; it ends the poem with two realizations. First, the poet reaches her Ajanta, “The real world where everything is complete.” She has cast off her debilitating grief and now stands shadowless “on summer earth.” Shadows, “the forms of incompleteness,” stand for illusion, the mere outline one so often perceives of something without seeing what the thing really is. In the cave, though, shadows do not exist: “Here everything is itself.”
The “Animals arrive,/ Interlaced, and gods/ Interlaced, and men/ Flame-woven.” All things are connected, both peacefully and fruitfully. In Ajanta, at last, the poet can say “I stand and am complete.” Her transformation into a unified being has come out of her great loss and her sense of the world’s loss. Out of the cave (her search, herself), she has been reborn.
The second realization is that although the world is and always will be a broken world, people must live in it, for there is no way to be whole unless one’s world “Enters the heart again”—even with its shadows and its “old noise of tears.” The poet’s rebirth has allowed her to welcome back the broken world and accept the struggles of living in it.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 449
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 desire for union, which is what the poet seeks in herself and with the world. The sexual impulse becomes a metaphor for unity at all levels of existence. Built into the poem are journeys toward a number of unions: the poet seeking the cave to enter it, the heart seeking its myth, the bereft lover seeking whatever will relieve her sorrow, the reborn traveler taking the world into her heart again.
The image of the cave, the poem’s central extended metaphor, also unifies the poem. Besides its thematic importance, the cave image frames the poem. The first lines of parts 1 and 5 echo each other: “Came in my full youth to the midnight cave” and “Came to Ajanta cave.” The repetition shows that the journey has come full circle, a closing device that indicates the poet has completed the journey.
The journey motif is crucial to the poem’s unity. Each section finds the traveler in another phase of self-examination; that is, in another place, more or less close to her desired goal. The nautical terms used to describe certain legs of the journey (the deserted harbor, “night sailing the river,” “the foghorn’s word”) also help unify the poem and indicate the elemental nature of the voyage.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 61
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.
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