Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

By choosing to make her journey by water, Rukeyser consciously uses the time-honored symbolism of water and sea voyaging. Water is the source of life, what we are born out of; it flows beneath the surface of things; it is the element of fertility, and it is always moving and changing. It is a favorite symbol, also, to indicate female life force and women’s physical transformations. This poem is about transformation and nurturing new life, or rebirth.

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“Ajanta” opens Beast in View, Rukeyser’s fourth book of poems. The “beast” she hunts on her spiritual voyage is not always in view—in “Ajanta” it remains hidden from her until her final reconciliation in the cave to which it has led her. The beast is her innermost self, what makes her who she is, what is vital to her being. The thematic energy of “Ajanta” is devoted to capturing the beast—herself in her own myth of herself—so that she can be a whole person again. Because the poem is about transformation, and adapting to changes in life and the world, the beast in “Ajanta” often appears in disguises. All these masks are part of the poet’s personality and her changes. She seeks to unify them and accept them all: “the whore with the dying red hair,/ the child myself who is my murderer” and later “the panther with its throat along my arm” and “the silver derelict wearing fur and claws.”

The search for self-identity in “Ajanta,” however, is not an end in itself. Beginning with descriptions of war atrocities, the poem reminds readers that to know oneself is vital also for the sake of the world in which one lives. The poet seeks the strong armor of self-knowledge, rather than the armor of rage, in order to know better how to aid the struggles of those who have been betrayed or who are suffering loss. The “world of the shadowed and alone” is a place in which the conscientious must fight for those in need and confront “the struggles of the moon.” In “Letter to the Front” (also from Beast in View), Rukeyser praises the healing power that women can offer the world, especially in time of war. She envisioned female sensibilities transforming traditional man, or the traditional masculine ideal. This vision laid a path for later women poets, such as Adrienne Rich, who continue to explore similar themes.

The cave is a symbol for female sensibility, mystery, and strength. It is a dark interior, a place of hiding or hibernation, a place of meditation, a vault from which one emerges reborn, as did Jesus. It is also a source of life: Its watery, quiet space nurtures, like a womb. Its interior can be mysterious yet comforting, black, and frightening, or cool and beckoning. “Ajanta,” says Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982), is “an explorationof her own interior—in every sense.” That is, as a poet and a woman, Rukeyser is interested in her mind and in her body’s flesh and form and how they shape her quest for fulfillment. The beauty, complexity, and energy of “Ajanta” has made it one of her most famous and powerful poems.

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