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Given Sugar, Given Salt

Given Sugar, Given Salt

by Jane Hirshfield

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"As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty, we become our choices," writes Jane Hirshfield in Given Sugar, Given Salt, her fifth and most expansive volume of poems to date. In poems complex in meaning yet clear in statement and depiction, Hirshfield explores questions of identity and aging, of the losses and gains of both connection and solitude,


"As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty, we become our choices," writes Jane Hirshfield in Given Sugar, Given Salt, her fifth and most expansive volume of poems to date. In poems complex in meaning yet clear in statement and depiction, Hirshfield explores questions of identity and aging, of the losses and gains of both connection and solitude, and of the increasing pressure of time in contemporary life. Whether meditating upon a button, the role of habit in our lives, or the elusive nature of our relationship to sleep, Hirshfield brings each subject into a surprising and magnified existence. In the breadth and honed beauty of her contemplations, and in the deep usefulness readers ascribe to her work in their own lives, Hirshfield has made a place of her own among American Poets.

About the Author:
Jane Hirshfield is a visiting poet at universities and literary centers nationwide on a regular basis. She was featured on tow Bill Moyers PBS specials in 1999 and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the Poetry Center Book Award, and many other honors. Her poems have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Nation, The New Yorker, New Republic, and on Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac" program. She lives in Mill Valley, CA.

Editorial Reviews

W. S. Merwin
Jane Hirshfield's poems move like light beams — searching, discovering, pausing to make sure. They have some of the calligraphic plainness of classical Chinese painting: a few strokes and a new landscape appears, with a life in it not seen before but at once recognized. These are poems of space, air, and a remarkable precision of observation and revealed feeling.
Michael Ondaatje
In this collection that sees into the complex nature and behavior of a button, a pillow, an olive pit, leather, and ink, a self-portrait slowly emerges that is strange and remarkable. Jane Hirshfield's poems have such a wonderfully obsessive personal grammar and such delicate reversals that all objects and elements — like a house and its neighboring redwood tree — merge, becoming, as one poem says, 'a sudden, pure democracy' of being.
O Magazine
[Hirshfield's poems] are the kind of poems that could'before you even realize it'have quietly changed your life.
Sue Domis
I enjoyed this new collection very much. Hirshfield's poems are fresh & bright, very precise & clear. She is a refreshing poet.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Celebrated as an anthologist (Women in Praise of the Sacred, etc.), Hirshfeld seeks wisdom in the introspective occasions everyday life provides for this fifth collection. As in The October Palace, Hirshfeld's stripped-down diction and hushed sentences attend to her speaker's psychic losses and transformations: "For a year I watched/ as something--terror? happiness? grief?--/ entered and then left my body." "Dream Notebook" wrests a new-seeming subject from an old lyric quarry--not our dreams, but the way we forget them--while other poems consider household objects ("Pillow," "Ladder") in novel ways. Hirshfeld, who has also published a prose work on religion and poetry, uses Buddhism to inform a number of moving, straightforward lyrics and verse-essays (on "Clocks," "Ink," and "Sleep"). Elsewhere poems appeal to autobiography ("I, a woman of forty-five, beginning to gray at the temples") or take up, along with the speaker's overt self-consciousness, the powers and limits of poetry: "Does a poem enlarge the world,/ or only our idea of the world?"; "Why is it so difficult to speak simply?" A few such questions can go a long way, and Hirshfeld relies on their diffuse power too often: this long book of short poems might have been better shorter. A more serious flaw is Hirshfeld's dependence on Louise Gl ck's characteristic modes: the chilly, interior inquiries and flat declarations will seem very, very familiar to the latter's readers. Yet if Hirshfeld rarely surpasses her model, she uses it well: always accessible and on occasion profound, her new work will likely add to her large circle of admirers. (Feb. 12) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Poet, essayist, anthologist, and translator Hirschfield has infused her fifth book of poetry with the pensiveness of middle age. Amid the comfort of familiar things "the dog, the blue coffee mug" there is the disconsolate sense of life passing and the melancholy sloughing off of former selves: "One woman washes her face,/ another picks up the boar-bristled hairbrush,/ a third steps out of her slippers./ That each will die in the same bed means nothing to them." Hirschfield sees her life not as a static condition but as a fluid, changeable medium: "As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty,/ we become our choices." Over and over, Hirschfield attempts to speak clearly and plainly while acknowledging the difficulty perhaps the impossibility of doing so. In her Zen-influenced attempts to reduce poetry to the essential statement, she is frustrated with her too-human failures. In one very likable poem called "Button," she envies a button for its invulnerability to that unattractive emotion: "A button envies no neighboring button,/ no snap, no knot, no polyester-braided toggle./ It rests on its red-checked shirt in serene disregard." These are assured, controlled poems that tread carefully where others have trampled. They should be enjoyed by a wide range of readers. Ellen Kaufman, Dewey Ballantine Law Lib. LLP, New York Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Hirshfield's fifth collection, and, as with her previous work the poems are simple, almost ascetic in structure and vocabulary-yet quite complex in meaning. (To borrow a phrase popular on Madison Avenue, they comprise a "high-attention product.") Yet, unlike some of her academic contemporaries, Hirshfield does not engage in intentional obfuscation. Her purpose is rather to elucidate, and she does so with almost blinding clarity and sincerity. While she mentions Tu Fu and Li Po, she does not cotton to the faux Zen koans currently in vogue whose great truths sound like dialogue paraphrased from Kung Fu reruns. She has found her own truth and fashioned her own vessel for conveying it. Her specialty is the everyday object-a button, a pair of scissors, a spoon-and "their circle of simple, passionate thusness, their hidden rituals of luck and solitude." While the philosopher may contemplate nature through detachment, Hirshfield gains her knowledge through familiarity, even intimacy, with it. The resultant verse is therefore sensual rather than austere. And because she is "not entirely embarrassed to be human," she offers poems based on a soulful resignation to life's dilemmas as opposed to a merely intellectual renunciation of them. Not to make her work too forbidding, it must be stressed that these poems are highly accessible. Their sense, however, does not come to one in an epiphanous flash. Rather, it seeps into one's consciousness, like the aftertaste of some delectable morsel.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.22(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Envoy

One day in that room, a small rat.
Two days later, a snake.

Who, seeing me enter,
whipped the long stripe of his
body under the bed,
then curled like a docile house-pet.

I don't know how either came or left.
Later, the flashlight found nothing.

For a year I watched
as something — terror? happiness? grief? —
entered and then left my body.

Not knowing how it came in,
Not knowing how it went out.

It hung where words could not reach it.
It slept where light could not go.
Its scent was neither snake nor rat,
neither sensualist nor ascetic.

There are openings in our lives
of which we know nothing.

Through them
the belled herds travel at will,
long-legged and thirsty, covered with foreign dust.

Meet the Author

The author of five previous poetry collections and a book of essays, Jane Hirshfield has been a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and England’s T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, and she is the winner of the Poetry Center Book Award, the California Book Award, and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, and multiple volumes of The Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize anthologies.

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