From The Smoking Poet
Book Review by Zinta Aistars
Secret Leopard: New & Selected Poems 1974-2005 by Rosemary Nissen-Wade
Publisher: Alyscamps Press, 2005
The Australian poet Rosemary Nissen-Wade writes in her poem titled, “Crossing the Great Water:”
Words are such useless things
compared with the touch of a hand,
a smiling mouth, a soft eye…
Useless things, words. But all we have
when we live so distant.
All that we have to cross
the great spaces of air and ocean
lengthening between us.
But Nissen-Wade has taken those “useless words” and given them wings to cross the space between the poet and the reader. In an extensive collection of poetry written over a span of more than 30 years, we are witness to the poet’s literary growth. Her topics are large and timeless, yet Nissen-Wade brings them home to the individual reader in the everyday, unadorned words we all know, and with words that reach to the hidden heart, where large things live: love, death, faith, hope — and just in time, without waste, aimed true. In “Supreme Compliment,” she writes:
I miss one lover.
Easy man, unfurling
as a fronded fern to sip the sun
The fragile core firming,
stretching alive. Sensitive
in touch and movement,
He made love like a woman.
The whole person.
In admirable economy of words, Nissen-Wade sums up the wish of women everywhere, the struggle for what satisfies and lasts, the largesse of love for person from person, without a hint of unnecessary drama, no soapbox in sight, no garish decoration, because none is needed. This is the lover she misses, this one, and none of the others. In that, saying it all.
Other near perfect poems are “Incarnation” (“What ancient wind now sucks and cries/at our stones and walled places?”), “Autumn” (“lost faces/drifting on memory”), and again the stunning economy of words expressing something nearly too big for words in “The Same Valleys” (“I’m with you and alone, it’s quiet, my outline fills”). Nissen-Wade’s talent is in using the bare bones of big ideas and letting the reader fill in their own outlines with the echo of their own experiences. She says, simply, what we suddenly recognize we have been trying and trying to say all along, now only gasp in recognition: yes! That’s it… exactly.
An occasional miss, as in “Writing the Prison” or a section called “From Small Poems of April, 1991” that could be eliminated entirely without lessening the value of the whole, doesn’t keep this collection from being an overall poetic goldmine. Even in that obligatory poem every poet seems to eventually write in some version about writing itself, Nissen-Wade’s “Always the Writing” is fresh and personal. The collection concludes with a fitting series of goodbye poems, written about the poet’s mother and a friend named Karen, observing and capturing the process of human disintegration without melodrama or pity.
“…Each word brings me/closer to the edge of being singular,/discovering my own pains and rewards…”
It takes courage to take on the turning points of life, the rites of passage, but what else truly matters? Nissen-Wade has not only the courage, but the skill and talent to do so successfully.