Those “red staggered tortoiseshells springing”

Here are excerpts from “who put on our shoes,” a lovely poem by Rozalie Hirs, translated from Dutch by Donald Gardner, and published in Joyland Poetry (

River birch bark

River birch bark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


there look at those wild-strawberry leaves purring a little
cat between thorns where a tree shakes its swaying antlers
by skeletal islands dry-as-dust wind

 swift cuts a tail into two points punt drifts
 riverbanks to my right-as-rain roses on hairpin legs
 toes with thoughts and tongue in cheek clacking
 the buds burst out of their husks happy to be alive I am
 a daybreak lilac when its bursting spray allows
 and birch bark curls dance in wind
[  . . . . ]
with pomegranate leaves their scarlet hairs
I see loosestrife rooting through fields
weeds cuttings of horsetails a land full of may
moisten earth to sow spring ask mountains the time
not to be spun fine pale yellow plumed thistles not to come too close
pods float in ditches reflect white elderberry sprays
a smell wrapped in jasmine hats lost on air
speckled mossy green climb with daisy stalks
ladders along hair pupating into peacock butterflies
 [ . . . . ]
in knuckles little daggers of burning larch needles
always stab red staggered tortoiseshells springing where
hogweed grows beside pale birch bark bees zoom
the moon its antics see flagellates springing nightingale
then I eat belladonna slimy frogs legs hop
in curling beck between the script of tiny scots pines
bellowing sea joy billowing honey streams of cotton grass
bones of verge grass batter against a hill beacons
in the distance ships understand mirroring each other to shards

[Translated by Donald Gardner for StAnza, Scotland’s Poetry Festival, March 2012, with financial support from the Dutch Foundation for Literature, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. © 2012 Donald Gardner, Rozalie Hirs.]

I think this is beautiful ‘calico aesthetics’–not because it uses red, black, and white colors per se, but because it enacts a synaesthetic meld of sense perceptions and levels of dictions that doesn’t obscure each element. It doesn’t turn what’s calico–with its distinct but related aspects–into a tortie or tabby’s muddled gradations of color.

The poet celebrates the scene’s “wild-strawberry,” “swaying antlers,” and “cat between thorns” multidimensionality. There are “pomegranate leaves [with] their scarlet hairs” and “white elderberry sprays.” There’s the black-green of “tiny scots pines” and “belladonna,” so the calico color array is in fact invoked.

English: Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) at Å...

English: Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) at Ålö in Stockholm archipelago (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since we know that sometimes the Europeans call their calicos tortoiseshells, and since the poem opens with “there look . . . purring a little/cat between thorns” and moves finally to the “burning larch needles [which] always stab red staggered tortoiseshells springing,” I think this poem is about how integral “a little/cat” is to nature’s panoply. The poem portrays this panoply by layered, abutted descriptions, up to and including “peacock butterflies.”

Here is an image of what we’d probably call a calico in the U.S., but is called a tortie because she’s in England:

English: Billie, a female one-year-old tortie ...

English: Billie, a female one-year-old tortie and white cat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The image of “peacock butterflies” is itself a chimera–a double-natured creature–and indicates the strangely genre-gender-bending and anthropomorphizing that Hirs establishes as the reality in the cosmos of this poem.

N.B., See Venus the Two-Faced Cat Still a Mystery ( for more on the chimera cat whose image I put in an earlier post.