Part One:

Although Rukeyser never visited the Indian Caves of Ajanta, her poem evokes the atmosphere of the caves and glimpses of their paintings in stunning imagery. Her knowledge of the man-made caves was indebted to a portfolio of large-scale reproductions of the paintings and an essay by the art historian Stella Kramrisch, whose idiosyncratic observations on the technique of the cave paintings inform both the content and technique of Rukeyser’s poem.1 Reflecting Rukeyser’s turn to non-western, specifically Asian art in search of new emotional and aesthetic resources in a time of war, the poem draws on autobiographical sources, obscurely related to her personal experiences of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath.

Ajanta Caves

Ajanta Caves

The Ajanta caves are a group of 29 caves, hewn into the mountain side of a hidden ravine in north-western India. Dating from the 2nd century B.C.E. to about 480 C.E. and created by Buddhist monks, the caves are famous for their exquisite carvings and large murals commemorating the life and teachings of the Buddha (Spink 4-6).2 The tumultuous history of the caves’ genesis would have been of interest to Rukeyser and pertinent to her own poem, which is, in essence, a response to war. Frequently disrupted by violent political and religious upheavals, the caves’ construction and adornment, as much as their abrupt abandonment and subsequent effacement, offer vivid testimony of enduring Buddhist spiritual and aesthetic ideals and their embeddedness in human conflict and strife. The world of Ajanta is a world of beauty and peace–a “shadowless” world–in which humans, animals, and gods commingle in dense harmony. It served as a sacred retreat devoted to contemplation, worship, and, it appears, the collective creation of art. In her controversial essay on “Ajanta,” Stella Kramrisch noted the peculiar way in which the Ajanta paintings “do not aim at giving a picture of the world as it is beheld by the eye…[but] show it as it exists in the mind” (273). Rukeyser adopted this Buddhist principle of Ajanta cave art from Stella Kramrisch’s essay and imagined the cave as an archetypal place which confronts us with our deepest longings and fears, externalized as figures moving toward us in a stream of vivid images. The encounter with suppressed or erased parts of the self forms the poem’s psychological drama: a quest for emotional completeness and spiritual enlightenment, in the course of which the speaker (Rukeyser) is confronted with suppressed memories of violation and shame. In the poem, therefore, “sexual and exquisite” images of the Buddha, “Foreboding eyelid lowered on the long eye, / Fluid and vulnerable,” of pillars and prisms, the red cow, horses, a black panther, all “figures of consciousness,” are intercepted by nightmarish visions: a sharp face morphing into the blades of an electric fan; “the broken bottle of loss, and the glass / Turned bloody into the face”; a “woman laced into a harp” (an image form Hieronymus Bosch)3; a girl running down a street “Singing Take me, yelling Take me Take.”

The poem’s five segments describe an internal psychological journey of descent and return; a journey undertaken in “full youth” and alone, “wanting my fulness,” as the speaker says, “and not a field of war.” Once in “the painted cave of dream,” the speaker experiences an ecstatic opening of self, a trance, in which the “spaces of the body / are suddenly limitless,” and the senses–touch, sight, scent, hearing–are stimulated, intermingled, confused. In part three of the poem, “Les Tendresses Bestiales,” such euphoric extension of self releases a flood of terrifying memories of war and violence. The “Monster touch,” tender and seductive, gives rise to fears, desires, rages, the beast inside (“Ajanta” was published in a collection entitled Beast in View). She is “plunged deep” and descends even lower, to “the midnight cave,” where in the Jungian terms the poem employs, she finds her deepest self: a young girl consumed by sexual need, shame, and despair. The poem ends on a note of spiritual and emotional completeness allowing the speaker to (re) embrace “the shadow of the world” as it “Crawls from the door,/ Black at my two feet.”

Although inspired by Rukeyser’s imaginary involvement with Ajanta, the cave in the poem is a distinctly archetypal place: a sacred place of rebirth and rejuvenation, a womb-like space signifying transformation–creation and death, and a passage to the underworld of dreams; a symbol of the unconscious. The brief mention of a “repulsive clew” in part three links the cave to the labyrinth and the mythic tale of the minotaur and the ball of thread which Ariadne gave to Theseus, allowing him to defeat the beast and return from the labyrinth.4 In Rukeyser’s use of this mythic tale the clew refers to the spool of terrifying “repulsive” memories that draw her, magnetically, to the beast, the part of herself that rages and suffers, the part of her not only impacted by the war but implicated in it–both curse and cure. Unlike Theseus, the speaker does not kill the minotaur; instead, she appears to accept it, declaring at the conclusion of the poem’s journey: “I stand and am complete.”

This trajectory of the poem, however, is complicated by truly terrifying imagery of violence, extreme suffering, and sexual need that hints at personal autobiographical material not entirely transmuted or symbolized. A fuller understanding of the poem’s psychological and emotional drama, therefore, requires that we read it in connection with  Rukeyser’s large body of poetic work, in particular her Elegies, published during the years 1939-1948, which indicate that Rukeyser embarked on a rigorous self-exploration, most likely aided by Jungian psychotherapy, in an effort to confront personal inhibitions and fears as indicative of larger cultural forms of dysfunction implicated in war.5

Toward a new aesthetic:
Rukeyser composed “Ajanta” at a difficult period in her life and career. Her erstwhile recognition as a promising young poet of the left plummeted in the 1940s and 50s. Her patriotic World War Two poem, Wake Island, published in 1942, garnered the contempt of Partisan Review, a reigning literary institution among left-leaning avant-garde circles at the time. Her new aesthetic ventures, moreover, by complicating the documentary, populist style of her documentary epic Book of the Dead, were increasingly at odds with critical orthodoxies, both on the left and in the academic realm shaped by New Criticism. Louise Bogan, Rukeyser’s most acidic critic, found “Ajanta,” simply incomprehensible, and despite being lauded by such critics as Oscar Williams as among her “best” works, the poem sank into oblivion soon after its publication.6 David Bergman, in a 2010 essay, argues that “Ajanta” is a daringly innovative poem, whose formal experimentation and exploration of non-western aesthetics attest to an important shift in Rukeyser’s ideological and artistic allegiances.7 In diagnosing this shift, Bergman cites Ralph Allison’s earlier study of the poem, in which he argues that during the Second World War, Rukeyser “underwent a distinct shift from a poet of the literary left to an American pragmatist who aligned herself with the United States war effort and the political ideals of democratic pluralism” (1).8 Both scholars consider Rukeyser’s work in the graphics workshop of the Office of War Information (OWI), where she was briefly employed to produce War posters, a pivotal event in her search for a pluralist aesthetic that eschewed both high modernist elitism and leftist ideological orthodoxy while embracing hybrid forms and multiple perspectives designed to make spectators think. (Rukeyser’s work as “propagandist” came to a swift end when she and other artists were replaced by “advertising men” intent, not on ideas “to be fought for,” but on “selling” the war and working out its meanings later [Life of Poetry 137]). Allison defines pragmatism as “a philosophy of action that argues that value is not objectively determined, but rather created in use” (3). A pragmatist aesthetic then is concerned with the “uses” of art, which are, of course, best understood by reference to the impact of art and the aesthetic experience of the reader. Lending credence to Allison’s argument are Rukeyser’s own frequent references to “the uses” of poetry in The Life of Poetry, in particular her extended discussion of the impact of “combined forms,” as in a poster combining an image and few words (136-155).

In considering the aesthetics of “Ajanta,” however, it is important to remember that Rukeyser never aligned herself explicitly with a political or ideological position. “The shifting, hybrid nature of Rukeyser’s politics,” as Catherine Gander has more recently argued, “renders specific Marxist, Pragmatist or Socialist critique of the body of her work very difficult” (137):

Although Rukeyser’s pluralism and emphasis on use-value appear to situate her thinking within pragmatic theory, her conjunction of pragmatism with documentary ideologies, plus her evident and frequent recourse to transcendental and individualistic Romanticism, extend her poetics to a multi-faceted philosophy more concerned with generating human contact and renewal than adhering to social or political paradigms” (138).9

Rather than reflecting a major reorientation in Rukeyser’s poetics, then, “Ajanta” indicates a new urgency in Rukeyser’s search for aesthetic practices “generating human contact” and “renewal”–emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic–at a time of war. Most important among these new practices are her use of ekphrasis, cinematic montage, and the peculiar style of Buddhist painting, analyzed so vividly by Stella Kramrisch. All three coalesce in Rukeyser’s depiction of the Ajanta experience as one of interconnection and “total response”: the murals present the world of the Buddha as a rhythmic web containing the entire world: “interlaced gods, animals, men [and women]”; “rocks and palaces” standing “on a borderland of blossoming ground.” The experience of interconnection includes the spectator, who is compelled to “tear open [her] ribs and breathe the color of time” by the force of the images coming “forward / In flaming sequences” and the all-encompassing, multi-sensory experience of the cave itself, an enclosed space in which what is external and internal–the outer world and the inner world of the body–become one: “The space of these walls is the body’s living space.”

Of course, classifying “Ajanta” as ekphrastic poem means to notice, immediately, how Rukeyser extends and bends the genre of ekphrasis. “Ajanta” is neither about the painted caves of Ajanta, nor devoted to depicting the paintings themselves, except in flashes. Instead, it seeks to convey the experience of the painting and the mental and emotional processes of “going” to the paintings. Rukeyser noted that we lack a word” for the audience action before a movie or an opera or a television screen” (Life of Poetry 133). In her mind, even the reference to “reading” a poem scarcely captures “the combination of sense-actions” (133-134) involved in that complex activity. She points out, “No one sense is employed in perceiving a work of art, and probably no one sense is ever employed alone” (134). In her ekphrastic effort to dramatize the intersubjective, multi-sensory experience of the cave paintings she draws on her knowledge of films and film editing. Film incorporates multiple media (it is by nature a hybrid genre) and, if to varying degrees, all of the senses. Moreover, cinematic images are “projected” onto a screen in a dark, cave-like auditorium, and move toward–and away–from the viewer in rhythmically interconnected shots. The fluid sequencing of “shots” in “Ajanta,” synchronizing visual, auditory, oral, tactile, and kinetic senses, suggests Rukeyser’s close attention to cinematic technique, in particular the essays of Sergei Eisenstein. “The continuity of film,” she maintained, is closer to the continuity of poetry than anything else in art” (LP 141).

To be continued

Works Cited

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Ed. Janet Kaufman and Anne Herzog.

—–. The Life of Poetry.

Acknowledgment: This essay is very much indebted to the lively and illuminating conversations of the “Ajanta Group” in the Spring of 2014. My thanks go to Clayton Eshleman, Lisa Klopfer, and Adam Mitts.

© Elisabeth Däumer

  1. Stella Kramrisch, “Ajanta.” Exploring India’s Sacred Art: Selected Writings of Stella Kramrisch. Ed. Barbara Stoller Miller. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts and Motilal Banarsidass, 1983.
  2. For a detailed description of the caves and their history, see Walter Spink’s Cave By Cave: Ajanta–History and Development (Brill Academic Publishers, 2006).
  3. I want to thank Clayton Eshleman for alerting me to this allusion.
  4. Rukeyser’s poem “The Minotaur,” was published in Beast in View as well.  For an informative commentary on the poem, see Vivian Pollak’s essay “The Minotaur and the Trouble with Normal,” published on this website.
  5. See the recent webinar on Rukeyser’s Elegies: Revisiting Muriel Rukeyser’s Elegies in Times Like These.
  6. Louise Kertesz. The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. 216-17.
  7. David Bergman. “Ajanta and the Rukeyser Imbroglio.” American Literary History 22.3 (2010):553-583.
  8. Ralph C. Allison. “Muriel Rukeyser Goes to War: Pragmatism, Pluralism, and the Politics of Ekphrasis.” College Literature 33.2 (2006): 1-29.
  9. Catherine Gander. Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: The Poetics of Connection. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2013.