Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546
“Ajanta” has been hailed as the finest poem of Rukeyser’s first decade of work and is one of her most famous writings. The name Ajanta refers to a number of ancient cave temples and monasteries in India that are famous for their wall paintings. The poem is written in Rukeyser’s characteristic cluster form and is made up of five parts, titled “The Journey,” “The Cave,” “Les Tendresses Bestiales,” “Black Blood,” and “Broken World.”
“The Journey” explains the significance of “Ajanta”: The poem will describe Rukeyser’s solitary youthful journey through the stormy world to that moment of peace that is the cave. Although she blessed her heart’s ability to suffer (and to empathize), she was torn between youth’s natural desire to cherish the values it had been taught and the activism that her conscience demanded at the sight of injustice. In other words, “Ajanta” will tell the story of her synthesis of personal and political concerns.
“The Cave” represents the peacefulness the poet will feel when she finally accepts the world’s condition and her place in that world. In this section, Rukeyser describes the nature of the cave: It is both a space in the mind and a space in the body, yet it “is not a womb,” for “nothing but good emerges” from the cave. (This contrasts with the mixture of good and evil in all humans.) Rukeyser’s journey, then, is to be an internal one. In the cave, “the walls are the world,” and “the space of these walls is the body’s living space.” She senses that the “spaces of the body/ Are suddenly limitless,” that once she reconciles her inner conflicts she will have her freedom.
In the third section of “Ajanta,” “Les Tendresses Bestiales,” it becomes apparent that Rukeyser has not yet reached the cave but is still held in the outside world. This world suddenly changes from a world of beauty into a world of savagery and tumult, paralleling the change in Rukeyser from a peaceful, sheltered child into a torn, lost being. She writes, “I am plunged deep. Must find the midnight cave.”
“Black Blood,” the fourth section of “Ajanta,” conveys all the anger, fear, greed, and turmoil of real life. As the poet runs, lost in this welter of blood and viciousness, she is found by a bit of hope: “—As I ran I heard/ A black voice beating among all that blood:/ ’Try to live as if there were a God.’”
In the fifth section, “The Broken World,” Rukeyser has reached the Ajanta cave, “The real world where everything is complete./ There are no shadows, the forms of incompleteness.” Here, the conflicts within her have been resolved, and she has no doubts. She experiences not merely freedom from conflict but also happiness, and she writes, “Here all may stand/ On summer earth.”
Even as she has achieved unity and contentment, however, “Crawls from the door,/ Black at my two feet/ The shadow of the world.” This shadow reminds Rukeyser of the disunity and trouble in the world outside the cave and will not let her withdraw into herself. By writing “Ajanta,” she has not only united the differences within herself but also accepted the task of speaking out against worldly injustices.
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