A member of the Spanish modernistas, Juan Ramón Jiménez published his first volume of poetry at the age of eighteen with help from the movement’s leader, Rubén Darío. Platero y yo (1917), a long prose poem about a man and his donkey, set near his birthplace of Moguer, Andalusia, made him popular in both Latin America and the United States. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Jiménez and his wife, the poet Zenobia Camprubí, fled the country. They began an itinerant life of exile that would lead them to Cuba, Florida, Washington D.C., and finally to Puerto Rico, where the couple settled in 1946. Jiménez remained there for the rest of his life, his lyrical and philosophical work influencing Puerto Rican writers such as Giannina Braschi, Manuel Ramos Otero and René Marqués. Among his best-known works are Sonetos espirituales (1916), Piedra y cielo (1919) and Voces de mi copla (1945). An advocate of what he called la poesía desnuda (naked poetry), Jiménez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1956 for his poems “of high spirit and artistic purity”. He died two years later.
Identity and the construction/deconstruction of self was one of Jiménez’s most frequent subjects, especially in the collection Animal de fondo(1947), in which he explored the religious preoccupations that governed the last years of his life. He was also heavily influenced by the French Symbolists, including Valéry, Mallarmé and Rimbaud. Following their lead, he rejected naturalism and realism in favour of a poetry that could more easily accommodate dreams, visions and athletic leaps of logic. In “Elemental Creature”, for example, a seemingly disembodied voice speaks from what he calls “a depth / which is the sacred well of myself”, addressing a higher power that he alternately deems “you”, “Thou” and “god”. The point of the poem, however, is not to serve as a prayer, but rather to locate an awareness or “loving consciousness” beyond the physical. Jiménez insists that this god exists to connect the speaker not only to this higher plane, but also to himself: “You were, to make me think that you were you, / to make me feel that I was you, / to make me rejoice that I was I”. “Elemental Creature” refuses to offer the reader any certainties, even at the level of rhyme and metre, for as Jiménez wrote: “When one wishes to express something profound, one does not express it in jingles”. The poet, he suggests, must instead invent an entirely new language – more “elemental” – to address “the light of a conscience / greater than all the dreams”.
“My element is air” – I said –, “I am a creature founded on air” – over the earth –, now over the sea; having passed, like the air, through a sun which high above is carbon, my outer self, and illuminates with its coal my second compass of destiny.
But you, god, are also in this element and you see this light, from another sphere projected; Thou art and you are the great and small in me, in a proportion which is my own, infinite toward a depth which is the sacred well of myself.
And you were in this well before with the flower, the swallow, the bull, and the water; with dawn a carmine arrival of renovated life; with sunset a golden flight of glory. In this daily well you were with me, with me, boy, youth, man, and I was drowning not knowing you, I was drowning not remembering you. This well which was, just and nothing less than the centre of the earth and its life.
You were in the magic well the destiny of all destinies in sensuality beautiful aware that to enjoy in the fullness of loving consciousness is the greatest virtue transcending us.
You were, to make me think that you were you, to make me feel that I was you, to make me rejoice that you were I, to make me shout that I was I in the element of air in which I am, where I am creature founded on air, with wings stilled in the air, wings that move in the light of a conscience greater than all the dreams of eternities and infinities which are later, no more than I am now, of the air.
Juan Ramón Jiménez Translated by J. L. Gili (1957)