I Am Not I

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I Am Not I

I am not I.
                   I am this one
walking beside me whom I do not see,
whom at times I manage to visit,
and whom at other times I forget;
who remains calm and silent while I talk,
and forgives, gently, when I hate,
who walks where I am not,
who will remain standing when I die.

Juan Ramón Jiménez, “‘I Am Not I’” from Lorca and Jiménez: Selected Poems.

Translated by Robert Bly

Lorca and Jimenez: Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 1973)

I came across this short, marvellous poem for the first time yesterday.

A confession: it has sat on my shelf for years, in an anthology given to me by my wife (Poem for the Day: One, edited by Nicholas Albery and Peter Ratcliffe, with a foreword by Wendy Cope: The Natural Death Centre, 1994). Another confession: I only started reading this book towards the end of last year.

This is because I am a snob. On receiving it I resisted its simple (and clever) format, of presenting a different poem by a different poet on each day of the year, as too trite, too straightforward. I am also an idiot.

Each page contains notes on the poet and poem in question. These are written in plain English, without a trace of academic jargon. At the top of each page there are more notes, in bullet point format, telling you what happened on that day in history to poets of note. Who knew that William Stafford was born on 17 January, for example? Or that Sir Thomas Wyatt was sent to the Tower on that day in 1541? I certainly didn’t.

It’s a wonderful book. I wish I had begun reading it sooner. As I say: idiot.

The story is one of rediscovering something hidden in plain view all along. It is also that moment of recognition, of everything coming together, a private, teasing, silent absolute yes to the poem connecting with your life at the point at which you need it, unbidden and unforced, yet somehow unstoppable and inevitable.

As I have been saying recently, I find myself increasingly drawn to poems which are more in love with the traces they leave on the silence at the core of their moment than they are with the shiny surfaces of ego and performance. I honestly believe that if you held a gun to most poets heads they would say the same, in recognition of their true gifts and subjects.

This lovely, plain-as-clear-water poem by the Nobel Prize-winning Jiminéz is a parable of such mindfulness in action. It does not judge. It accepts that hatred may be present, and forgetfulness (including the awareness of presence itself). It knows when to be gentle. It accepts everything, even the fact of death.

What I love most is that it is without ambition for its own career and afterlife. It surrenders itself completely to its moment. Paradoxically, the moment it begins to disappear is also the moment it finds itself.

9 comments

  1. Jenny Swann

    Hi Anthony – and the really clever thing about that anthology, which I have had for a few years now, is that at the end of the book/year, one turns right back to the beginning. So all the poems get re-read each year, and suddenly the reader finds they have learnt them all, or at least got to know them from the inside, so that the poems have become familiar friends. It’s a wonderful book. And given that there are two bathrooms in our house (what a giveaway) I keep the second volume of this anthology in the other one!

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  2. Alwyn Marriage

    I bought ‘Poem for the Day 2’ in a second hand bookshop in Wigtown, and have loved using it for the last eighteen months. I’d like to have ‘Poem for the Day 1’ in electronic form, so that I could take it on camping holidays on my iPad, but so far it hasn’t been produced in that format.
    The interesting this is that although I’m on the second time round in ‘2’, some of the poems seem new to me. Either I’m getting forgetful, or I missed a few days last year.

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  3. Camille

    Anthony
    Thank you. Your view and understanding are worthy and sentimentally shared. I too find with every read there is a clarity that takes hold like no other. “I am Not I” lends itself to every situation, rhyme and season. Every time I read it the experience of its clear simplicity is a new discovery that gives off a soothing reassurance to my time and space.

    I heard the poem through a podcast 2 years ago and when digging. I have since hid copies away in books and papers Trying to resurrect the nostalgic first find feeling and it never disappoints. Its nice to hear from some one else who had similar experiences because it really. Is a lovely piece of work by Juan Ramon Jimenez.

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