Adam Mitts: The Ajanta Group–The Poem as Meeting Place

Memory, like a cave exposed to air, consumes its own images, as if the act of remembering graffitis the mind’s paintings in the name of restoring them. I can’t help but feel as if the pigments crack and peel from the walls in my skull as I trace their shapes. This blog is a slow crawl into the tunnels beneath my memory, to see the memory as it was before it is sealed within this writing, by this writing, for its own protection.

I was standing in the parking lot of a church in Ypsilanti, Michigan on a brisk, sunny June day when Elisabeth Däumer turned to me and said, “You should write a blog post about our meetings with Clayton. It’s too bad we didn’t think of this earlier, it could have been a running series, a journal of our discussions.” This was after the last meeting of what we had been calling the Ajanta Group. Every few weeks last spring, the four of us met to discuss Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Ajanta“: Elisabeth Däumer, Eliot and Rukeyser scholar, professor at Eastern Michigan University, administrator of Muriel Rukeyser: A Living Archive; Clayton Eshleman, esteemed poet and translator, retired EMU professor emeritus, expert on paleolithic cave paintings; Lisa Klopfer, a librarian and anthropologist specializing in India, who has visited the Ajanta caves which inspired Rukeyser’s poem; and myself, assistant to Dr. Däumer, an undergraduate at EMU, and something of a poet and a scholar, although decidedly an amateur in both fields, especially compared to my illustrious colleagues in the Ajanta Group.

When Muriel Rukeyser wrote of the poem as a “meeting-place” in The Life of Poetry, what she had in mind was a type of worldview which poetry could impart. “It is [a matter of] seeing that there is a meeting-place between all the kinds of imagination,” she writes, comparing poetry’s project to that of science. She goes on to say that “poetry depends on the moving relations within itself…it is an art that lives in time, expressing and evoking the moving relation between individual consciousness and the world.” In the case of “Ajanta,” for example, Muriel’s poem provides a meeting-place between art history and personal history, between Indian art and European art, between painting and film, between memory and history. And was there ever a poem that best revealed “the moving relations within itself” as “Ajanta,” where images flicker into sight only to merge into each other, or change altogether, as past and present, film and memory, life and canvas, lose their legible boundaries?

Our Ajanta Group meetings were an experiment in something suggested by Muriel’s quote but never explicitly stated. If a poem is a meeting-place of different kinds of knowledge and imaginative spaces for the poet (and the reader), what happens when the poem becomes a meeting-place for multiple readers (some of them poets!), who bring all their differing perspectives and disciplines and imaginations to bear on understanding the “moving relations” in the poem? What we could each bring to “Ajanta” were the “moving relations” of our own minds as we wrestled with Muriel’s words – Jungian psychoanalytic theory, for example, was a Clayton specialty that I don’t think the rest of us were adept at, while Lisa understood the cultural context of the Buddhist iconography to which Muriel was responding, and Elisabeth could see instances from Muriel’s life refracted in the poem’s sometimes difficult imagery.

I first encountered Clayton Eshleman’s name as a translator of Aime Cesaire and Antonin Artaud. I had heard that he was a professor at EMU before I started studying poetry there, and even picked up a few of his books from the campus bookstore (I also noticed that his ouevre took up nearly an entire shelf of Halle Library’s faculty alcove, a remarkably prolific feat). When I showed up at his house for the first time, I could barely suppress my grin as I recognized his face from the author photos on his books. He led Elisabeth, Lisa and I into a home filled with intriguing books and artifacts from his travels, such as a Tanooki statue from Japan which instantly brought a smile to my face. As Clayton poured us ginger tea, my eye was constantly drawn to an expressionistic painting of a spider under which sat the galley proofs for a new translation of Cesaire’s complete poetry. Clayton then spread out on the coffee table a series of books about cave paintings in France, many of them out of print. The plates in some of these books showed paintings where the lines were vibrant and visible, not yet damaged by the breath and lanterns of countless tourists. After an afternoon of answering our questions about stone age painters, in which Clayton sometimes doubted whether his work on the paleolithic age was applicable to Muriel’s poetic meditations on Indian cave art, it was decided that we each take a section of “Ajanta” and try to interpret it, teaching the others what we discovered, before eventually moving on to a sustained reading of Clayton’s own Juniper Fuse, an erudite and unique hybrid of poetry, theory and memoir drawn from his decades of researching and visiting the caves in France.

Muriel Rukeyser never visited Ajanta. She wrote the poem after reading Stella Kramrisch’s book about the paintings in the Ajanta caves. “Ajanta,” as a poem, is as much of a hybrid as Juniper Fuse: memories of the Spanish civil war mix with passages on aesthetics lifted from Kramrisch and Muriel’s ecstatic response to the reproductions of the paintings in Kramrisch’s book, as well as what seem to be references to Hart Crane, Hieronymus Bosch, the myth of Perseus, Dante’s “Inferno,” the enigmatic Floating Man who appears in several other Rukeyser poems…all written in the context of World War II and what is now known as the Rukeyser imbroglio, when Rukeyser’s work in the Office of War Information made her suspect to the left. Elisabeth’s recent essay on “Ajanta,” posted on the Rukeyser website, synthesizes many of the discoveries the Ajanta Group made while reading this poem, so I will not rehearse them here. What I will say, what I want to say, is how the reading of “Ajanta” made us feel. Muriel had a moment of almost ecstatic nirvana, an enlightenment of the flesh, not by visiting Ajanta, but reading about it in Kramrisch. And so we in the Ajanta Group gradually grew closer to understanding Muriel, not by meeting her (though Clayton once knew her), but by reading “Ajanta,” itself a cave, a cave of memory, where the images often faded and merged in inscrutable palimpsests, memories disguised as paintings and paintings disguised as memories.

On a side note, is it too embarrassing to add how I, as a poetry nerd, found my jaw dropping when Clayton would make an off-handed remark like “when Gary Snyder and I went to the caves…” or “that reminds me of something Allen Ginsberg once said to me…”? Or how I felt when I mentioned the Body-Without-Organs and he said, “Ah! You’re a friend of Artaud!”? And I think I understand why he took issue with the interpretation of Muriel’s line, “Try to live as if there were a God,” as being merely an expression of her commitment to ethics and the poetry of witness. As a poet myself, I understand the instinct not to reduce a fellow poet to one interpretation. I know that when I read Muriel, I don’t want to iron out the wrinkles in her writing, I want to deepen them until they become chasms, chasms that reach out into the cosmos and burrow into it to become caves we can become lost in. I feel this way, especially, about “Ajanta.”

Our reading of “Ajanta” started out promising. We each tackled the first part, “The Journey,” collectively, then Elisabeth did a close reading of the second part, “The Cave,” which was so illuminating that all of Muriel’s symbolic and figurative moves began to link into a sort of conceptual unity. But then we came to the part I was supposed to interpret, “Les Tendresses Bestiales.” In this part of the poem, the richest as well as the most inscrutable, imagery and even syntax began to break down, and chronology became confused. It was clear that this section was haunted by something, most likely the Spanish Civil War, and one can read it as an elegy for the loss of Muriel’s lover, Otto Boch. But it is about something much more, the “bestial tenderness” of human relations which are a wellspring of both sexual and artistic creation, as well as sexual and martial violence. The poem began to resemble a forcefield, pushing us out as much as it drew us in. Much like the cave wall of Ajanta itself, “Ajanta” became a screen in which the images faded until only the barest outline remained, a screen where Rukeyser could project her own traumatic memories while allowing her readers space to project their own interpretations. Rukeyser was trying to communicate the incommunicable, using her poem as a meeting-place between imagery drawn from her own life, collective memories of war and suffering throughout history, and the reader’s own imagination. Clayton summed it up when he said, “She’s trying to say something, but I don’t think she wants us to know what it is. The language is deliberately turning us away.” Elisabeth’s essay reckons with this section in more depth than I can go into here.

Eventually we turned to Clayton’s own Juniper Fuse. I don’t want to dwell too much on this book, as it demands to be read in full and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but I would like to assuage Clayton’s doubts as to whether Juniper Fuse can help us understand “Ajanta.” Just as Rukeyser turned to Ajanta to make sense of a world at war and find a continuity of life reflected in art, especially the art of caves, so Juniper Fuse is a poetic exploration of how it is that we have survived our long centuries of violence – and not only survived, but left traces, speaking to each other from beyond the grave, whether it’s in the paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux, or the paintings in Ajanta, or the poetry of Rukeyser and Eshleman. Juniper Fuse is about many things, but one of the insights that haunted me the most was its thesis on the emergence of the human. When early humans had to slaughter animals for food and clothing, they had to develop a sense of themselves as something other than animal. In our meetings, Clayton spoke of this as the original violence, one that echoes next through violence towards women, and then through the rest of the violence that haunts our species. But key to the development of the paleolithic imagination was the movement from gouging holes in rock to mark passage through caves, to the carving of a line which can represent a shape in the imagination. It is at this point that art is born. And it is at this point that the separation of human and animal becomes complete and, as Clayton writes, “humans become a metaphor.”

I wonder if, despite this violent gouging of human from animal, and human from human, that birthed our humanity and our art, the cave becomes a meeting-place, becomes itself an image and a metaphor, a space of image and metaphor, the space of the poem – the meeting-place for all those “moving relations” which divide us, but which might also save us. Is this the “bestial tenderness” which marks not only how we destroy, but how we create?

We still meet regularly, this time to read and discuss Cesar Vallejo in Clayton’s award-winning translation. I can’t help but feel that Vallejo speaks to me as a ghost across our century, a phantom who fell in that war which Muriel left behind when she fled Spain. Muriel opens The Life of Poetry with an anecdote of her leaving Spain on a boat and being asked what the use of writing poetry was. She says that it was then that she began to say what she truly felt. She leaves an ellipsis in this introduction, as if to say that the rest of her life was dedicated to answering that question. While great poems (“The Book of the Dead,” for one) preceded it, “Ajanta” to me seems like a hinge in her work, a moment of profound personal, moral and aesthetic enlightenment, and a high-water mark in modernism on the level of The Waste Land. “Ajanta” is when Muriel not only began to say what she felt, but found a singular and challenging form in which to say it.

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