Perishable, It Said

Perishable, it said on the plastic container,
and below, in different ink,
the date to be used by, the last teaspoon consumed.

I found myself looking: 4
now at the back of each hand;
now inside the knees.
now turning over each foot to look at the sole.

Then at the leaves of the young tomato plants, 8
then at the arguing jays.

Under the wooden table and lifted stones, looking.
Coffee cups, olives, cheeses,
hunger, sorrow, fears---- 12
these too would certainly vanish, without knowing when.

How suddenly then
the strange happiness took me,
like a man with strong hands and strong mouth, 16
inside that hour with its perishing perfumes and clashings.

In Perishable, It Said, Hirshfield deals with the themes of time and mortality. She compares life to a variety of perishable items such as “coffee cups, olives, [and] cheeses” (Hirshfield 11). The speaker wonders about the expiration date on a certain food item and begins to look for an expiration date on herself. Hirshfield’s repetition of “now” (Hirshfield 5) expresses the narrator’s urgency to find the date on herself. The idea that her own date of death could be stamped on her own body both terrifies and fascinates her. The image of a woman looking at an expiration date on herself is bizarre because it’s something nobody would think to do, even though when considering at the idea of an expiration date simply it makes sense. This poem focuses on mortality but not in a morbid way. The tone is questioning yet optimistic. Although she is looking for an expiration date on herself, a date that will tell her when her life will end, she doesn’t find one. Instead, she comes to the realization that mortality and the fleetingness of most things is truly a good thing. She mentions how “hunger, sorrow, fears” are all temporary; nothing lasts forever, but one wouldn’t want the things previously listed to last forever anyways (Hirshfield 12). She uses “hunger, sorrow, [and] fears” to symbolize all of the bad in the world and to show that those feelings, all feelings, are only temporary (Hirshfield 12). Although all good things must come to an end, all bad things will come to an end, too. This realization brings relief and optimism to the narrator.

When reading the lines “then at the leaves of the young tomato plants,/ then at the arguing jays”, I think first of a child and then of an older couple. The young tomato plants symbolize new life; life that will eventually expire even though the narrator doesn’t find an expiration date on it. Morality is just inevitable. The arguing jays remind me of a bickering older couple; the bickering, like the other bad things mentioned in the poem, will eventually end, but it is impossible to tell when. This juxtaposition shows the variety of life, but how everything in life is fleeting. The plants are only young for a short time, and the bickering will not last forever.

The most important symbol in this poem is the expiration date itself. The idea that all things will come to an end is a difficult idea to grasp, but one that Hirshfield shows the narrator accepting beautifully. After looking for an expiration date on herself and not finding one, the narrator experiences a “strange happiness” (Hirshfield 15). This happiness comes from knowing that al l things “would certainly vanish, without knowing when” (Hirshfield 13). Knowing the date of her own death or of all things expirations would be a burden. She is relieved that she didn’t find a date on herself. If she had, she would’ve spent the rest of her life in fear waiting for that day. Instead, she is able to enjoy the idea that although mortality is inevitable the exact date of her death is impossible to know.


Come, Thief

The mandarin silence of windows before their view,
like guards who nod to every visitor,
"Pass." 3

"Come, thief,"
the path to the doorway agrees.

A fire requires its own conflagration. 6
As birth does. As love does.
Saying to time to the end, "Dear one, enter."

Come, Thief is the title poem of one of Hirshfield’s many published poetic anthologies. The most prominent theme throughout the entire poem is time, and this poem is no exception. In fact, this poem introduces all of the others with its clear symbols and accepting tone. “Thief” is a metaphor for time (Hirshfield 4). Time gives us all of our joys in life, but it will eventually take all of our joys away. Hirshfield wants people to accept that idea and welcome it, which is why this poem is called “come, thief”. She wants us to welcome time and say yes to everything that we encounter in life.

In this poem, the “path” (Hirshfield 5) is metaphor for acceptance, as are the “guards” (Hirshfield 2). No paths discriminate; anyone can walk down a path. The path cannot choose who enters it, but all different kinds of people do. Just like a path cannot choose who walks down it, we cannot choose whether time will or will not control our lives. Time is ever present. It can be a scary, dangerous idea if we do not come to terms with it. The “windows” also represent acceptance, as we cannot choose who can see in them and who can see out of them (Hirshfield 1). Windows are “silent” (Hirshfield 1); they do no discriminate. Hirshfield wants us to welcome everything in life, all different kinds of experiences that times allows us to have. The idea that “a fire requires its own conflagration” is metaphor for all things needing to be started by something else (Hirshfield 6). Time is what starts our experiences and allows us to have them. We must be thankful that time is present in our lives; we must embrace this idea. “Birth” and “love” also do not just happen; they must be started by something else. We must be given an opportunity to allow these things to happen, and time gives us those opportunities, which is why we must accept it instead of fighting it.

Many of Hirshfield’s poems deal with the idea that immortality is truly impossible and the fact that we must accept our own mortality, and Come, Thief is no different. When we accept time, our opportunities are endless.

Here's an interview with Jane Hirshfield after the publication of her book with the same title, Come, Thief. In the opening paragraph, she discusses an important them found in the majority of poems in her book, especially in this particular poem. Later in the interview, she discusses the concerns found in the book.
Here's another interview in which she discusses the book but also describes the title.
At the bottom of the page, there is an audio clip of her reading the poem.

In an interview I watched about Jane Hirshfield, she discussed the importance of an arc. In this case, she refers to the arc between the beginning and ending of a book of poetry. Like a poem itself, a book must also have a transition. In Hirshfield’s book, Come Thief, she begins with “French Horn” and ends with “The Supple Deer”. I chose to focus on these two poems and address the issue of transition in her book. She does not write poems in order to create this transition, rather she puts her poems in order after the five or six years she spends writing them.

French Horn

Jane Hirshfield

(1) For a few days only,

the plum tree outside the window

shoulders perfection.

No matter the plums will be small,

(5) eaten only by squirrels and jays.

I feast on the one thing, they on another,

the shoaling bees on a third.

What in this unpleated world isn’t someone’s seduction?

The boy playing his intricate horn in Mahler’s Fifth,

(10) in the gaps between playing,

turns it and turns it, dismantles a section,

shakes from it the condensation

of human passage. He is perhaps twenty.

Later he takes his four bows, his face deepening red,

(15) while a girl holds a viola’s spruce wood and maple

in one half-opened hand and looks at him hard.

Let others clap.

These two, their ears still ringing, hear nothing.

Not the shouts of bravo, bravo,

(20) not the timpanic clamor inside their bodies.

As the plum’s blossoms do not hear the bee

nor taste themselves turned into storable honey

by that sumptuous disturbance.

As with the nearly all of the poems in Come, Thief, “French Horn” carries a theme of time. The plum trees in the first line are a Japanese sign of transience. Even without knowing the connection to Japanese poetry, the fact that the plums fall “for a few days only” shows their fleetingness (Hirshfield 1). Just as time vanishes so do the plums. They turn sour or are “eaten by squirrels and jays” (Hirshfield 5). “The plum tree outside the window shoulders perfection” for a short period of time because nothing can stay perfect forever (Hirshfield 2-3). Hirshfield wants to look at disturbance with a sumptuous perspective. Rather than hating disturbances and only viewing them as bad, she wants to learn to feel comfortable with anything and everything that may happen in her life.

The poem goes through a clear transition as Hirshfield takes the reader away from the garden with the plum tree and into a symphony hall. This passage addresses another prominent theme in Come, Thief: love. The horn is a symbol for life and all of the disturbances that occur in it. Everyone’s life has different sections. For example, Hirshfield wrote this book about her fifties. That is the section of her life in which she discusses most. Every section has disturbances thanks to “the condensation of human passages” (Hirshfield 12-13). This line may literally refer to the saliva that inevitably condenses on the horn from the man’s playing, but symbolically it refers to the problems in life that may cause people any kind of disturbance, anything that may make them question their life and attempt to change it. I’m not sure why he “takes his four bows” (Hirshfield 14); my only guess is that each bow represents a different section of his life. The “girl [that] holds the violas spruce and maple in one half-opened hand” is the girl that he loves (Hirshfield 15-16). The two clearly have a deep connection; lines 14- 20 show just how deep their connection goes. They are caught up in the moment, an example of how a disturbance can be a good thing. They cannot expect what will happen next, just as there is no way to know that a bee is going to feed on a plum or the plum itself will be turned into jam (Hirshfield lines 21-23). Disturbances are inexplicable, so we must accept them with graciousness.

Plum Tree

The Supple Deer
Jane Hirshfield

(1) The quiet opening 

between fence strands
perhaps eighteen inches.

Antlers to hind hooves,

(5) four feet off the ground, 

the deer poured through it.

No tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind.
I don’t know how a stag turns 

into a stream, an arc of water.

(10)I have never felt such accurate envy.

Not of the deer—

To be that porous,
to have such largeness pass through me.

Hirshfield received the inspiration for this poem after watching a large buck jump through a hole of “perhaps eighteen inches” (Hirshfield 3) as it attempted to get to her garden in order to eat the rose bushes.

The fence is a metaphor for life, and “the quite opening… perhaps eighteen inches” is a metaphor for acceptance (Hirshfield 1-3). The deer is a symbol for all kinds of problems or disturbances that may occur in ones life. It represents how relentless problems that we may attempt to cover up or ignore can be. Just as a large buck may jump “four feet off the ground” (Hirshfield 5) in order to fit through a surprisingly small hole, problems that we attempt disregard have a way of pushing their way into our lives all at once with “no tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind” (Hirshfield 7). The arc of water (Hirshfield 9) is the arc in which the stag jumps, so swiftly and effortlessly.

The end of the poem surprised me. In the beginning, I assumed Hirshfield was focusing on the deer: how it knew what it wanted and took it accordingly. When I read that the speaker “[had] never felt such accurate envy” (Hirshfield 10), I immediately assumed it was for the deer. After I read further and discovered that the speaker was jealous of pourous object, I realized he or she was talking about the actual fence. This coincides perfectly with the theme of accepting disturbances and viewing them in a sumptuous way, as Hirshfield mentioned in “French Horn”. Hirshfield wants to be able to accept anything that lives throws at her with open arms. She doesn’t want to pout over experiences that she was not expecting; she wants to rejoice in this fact and embrace it.

The Supple Deer Audio

“The Supple Deer” has a tone of wonder and awe. The speaker is amazed at the ability of the fence to take in whatever comes near it, even a stag. Hirshfield chose an interesting stanza structure. The turn between the second and third stanzas shows the change from a literal event to an explanation of the deeper meaning.


“The Supple Deer” is a great poem to end Come, Thief with because it summarizes an idea that Hirshfield is trying to get across the entire time; we must be open of life’s experiences for just as time gives us everything, it will eventually take away everything too. I really enjoyed the poems Hirshfield used to begin and end her book. I think “French Horn” was an excellent choice because it showed two of the central themes of the book, and “The Supple Deer” summarized the most important idea that Hirshfield was attempting to explain to her reader.

Interview with Jane Hirshfield that includes readings of both poems: