Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

“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...

(The entire section is 530 words.)