I usually write up these ragbag poetry posts when a poet is giving me trouble – which is most of the time. Pick out some good scraps – so, first, tear the poor poet to scraps – patch them together and take a look at the resulting quilt. It looks like something, mostly.
Juan Ramón Jiménez looks like the kind of poet with whom I have the most trouble. He was prolific beyond belief, with multiple styles or periods, apparently the cause of great disagreement among later Spanish poets – which are the best periods? even: which are the good periods? – although speaking generally, Jiménez is beloved. He wrote that book about the donkey.
Jiménez often works with big symbolic words detached from any context but the poem. It is a kind of abstraction. Hard times for me, and likely for any translator. Jiménez becomes plain in translation:
from The Poet to His Soul
Day after day you keep the branch protected
in case the rose may come; you go alert
day after day, your ear warm at the gate
of your body, for the arrow unexpected.
Your rose shall be the pattern of all roses;
your ear, of harmony; of every light
your thought; of every waking star, your state. (1914)
I am on p. 47 of Fifty Spanish Poems (1951), translated by J. B. Trend. I know, “arrow unexpected,” a Hispanicism (“la fleche inesperada”) kept for the sake of the rhyme (the poem is a sonnet, a pretty one). But the Spanish mostly seems a lot like the English. Maybe Trend is too literal. I often see the word “simple” attached to Jiménez’s style, for what that’s worth. Rose, soul, light.
To compound my troubles I read, alongside the fifty-poem, career-wide overview, a Jiménez book that Trend would not even have known about, Invisible Reality (1983, written 1917-23, translated by Antonio T. de Nicolás), a set of poems that sometimes seem like fragments or gestures but with a coherent voice and poetics. So it is a book, whatever Jiménez meant to do with it.
Compared to the published poems, Invisible Reality looks like an experiment in compressed personal mysticism. A vision, for example, of a twilight in which “joyful gold” becomes “a cloud of ashes” in “the dirty light of gasoline” leads to a cry of ecstasy, or anguish:
I was not ready to give up.
I cried for it; I forced it. I saw the ridiculous
irrationality of this candid fraternity
of man and life,
death and man.
And here I am, ridiculously alive, waiting
ridiculously dead, for death!
The next poem revisits the twilight – the same one? It’s just four lines, or five if the parenthetical counts:
That mauve cloud
pierced by the gold of twilight,
is it not, perhaps, my sad heart
pierced by the light of a love that is leaving?
In the next poem, Jiménez imagines he has a tree inside him. Should I think of these poems as a sequence. I picked these out not just because they were striking, but because a long stretch of poems seemed to tell an amorphous story. Maybe they all do.
Book just read,
my own fallen flesh,
underground plough of my life!
A poet’s spiritual autobiography, perhaps, or a spiritual poet’s autobiography.