A Selection of Poems from SECRET LEOPARD by Rosemary Nissen-Wade

Bye-Bye Barbie
A fable of Leah’s dolls

Betty with the home-made clothes
glares across the room at Barbie
who is shop-dressed, brand new,
buxom and coolly smiling.

Betty with the home-made hate
sidles across the room on her rag bum
sneakily, bit by bit, so Leah won’t see.
She is dragging the toy soldier’s axe.

Betty with the built-up hours
of staring across the room
has been inventing stories.
She is calling herself Cinderella.

She is calling herself Beauty
and Orphan, and Princess – and right.
Barbie, watching round-eyed, is mesmerised
as Stepmother/Ogre/Troll lunges for her blood.

© Rosemary Nissen-Wade 1990
First published
Second Degree Tampering (Sybylla 1992)
Walking the Dogs (Pariah Press anthology)
Also in
Secret Leopard: New and selected poems 1974-2005, Alyscamps Press (Paris) 2005


My stepfather showed me oceans.

Now these midnight moments
call and flesh the ketch
from childhood,
dusted by moonlight,
perfectly still
at the end of the pier.

That New Year’s Eve we danced
in circles on the sand.
Sand and sea joined flat.
We might have walked straight out
with no dividing breath.

‘St. Elmo‘s Fire,’ he said
pointing, as flame without wind
blew in the bare poles
leaving them clean.
The moon’s long wake
pierced the horizon.

My stepfather gave me boats.
Tonight he’s dying,
I’m far from home.

Twin masts faintly gilded
rise perfectly still
through all my seas, all ships
poised ever since,
a track of light
widening across the water.

Gone by morning.

© Rosemary Nissen 1981
Universe Cat, Pariah Press (Melb.) 1985
First published

Also in Secret Leopard: New and selected poems 1974-2005, Alyscamps Press (Paris) 2005
Set to music by Clive Price

The Sword of Archangel Michael

The sword glows
in my right hand.
My arm swings from the shoulder
wielding blue flame:
sharp light, the cut of truth.

Precise moves.
Economy. Bite.
These are the qualities.
These and blue light —
a laser that heals where it touches.

In the beginning
the word.
The word true,
the word precise,
the word deliberately aimed.

It cuts to the heart,
my sword in flight.
From the heart of God
to the point of now
exactly aimed,
quick light.

© Rosemary Nissen-Wade 1995
First published
Divan (e-zine) issue 4, Dec. 2001.
Also in
Secret Leopard: New and selected poems 1974-2005, Alyscamps Press (Paris) 2005

The Goddess Without

Mickie said,
“You have a Goddess tummy.
I love to work on it.”
I’d wanted her Lomi Lomi massage
to melt it away, make it
hard and lean like Halle Berry’s
when she played the latest Bond girl.
Instead I found myself weeping
in exquisite relief. I —
to be seen naked and found beautiful!
Always I saw myself ugly.

I look in the bathroom mirror now
and see the archetype:
Venus of Willendorf —
only my breasts are plumper,
less pendulous,
the skin of my belly
smoother, unwrinkled yet.
Has everyone been wrong,
that statue not Mother, but Crone?
She is how grandmothers look!
I claim my ancient beauty.

© Rosemary Nissen-Wade 2005
First published
Secret Leopard: New and selected poems 1974-2005, Alyscamps Press (Paris) 2005

The Day We Lost the Volkswagen

During a momentary lull in her head,
the poor old thing lost her grip.
The boat she was towing towed her instead
ponderously down the slip.
backwards into the water.

For a swirling moment she almost floated,
she thought of setting sail.
But her bum tilted, her britches bloated —
she was heavy in the tail —
and the sly seaweed caught her.

I thought even then she might make a try
(she seemed to be righting her flank)
but she spun gravely, one eye on the sky,
gave a dignified splutter and sank.
The sea frothed briefly.

I don’t know — she wasn’t the kind to drift,
much less come apart at the seams.
But the sails and the clouds that day had a lift,
and perhaps she had some dreams.
It was a damn nuisance, chiefly.

© Rosemary Nissen 1974
from Universe Cat, Pariah Press (Melb.) 1985
Secret Leopard: New and selected poems 1974-2005, Alyscamps Press (Paris) 2005
First published
Nation Review.
Also in:
A Second Australian Poetry Book for Children, Oxford
Secondary English Book 3, Macmillan
Off the Record, Penguin
Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets.


Down near the flat rocks at the pool
the secret leopard sniffs the day.
He tilts his head by the striped bamboo,
calling me: come and play.

When I was seven, and nine, and twelve,
I watched for his furious, bell-shaped head,
but they always dragged me back from the track.
'He is terrible,' they said.

They stuffed my ears with cottonwool,
they tied my hands and feet to the bed,
but still the house shook silkenly
to his broad, electric tread.

That was a long, long time ago.
Now I am grown and free to run
to the white rocks and the dim bamboo
and the velvet hood of the sun.

He has been waiting by the yellow pool,
padding the black leaves patiently,
holding the flame in his narrow eyes,
wild and slow as the sea.

His handsome haunches are molten gold,
his perilous paws flow red through the shade.
You may mew forever from your pitiful bed —
I am deep in the spiky glade.

I will not tell of the spotted jungle
with silver trees that eat the sun.
I will not tell of the tawny trails
where I and the lavish leopard run.

© Rosemary Nissen 1974 
from Universe Cat, Pariah Press (Melb.) 1985
First published A Second Australian Poetry Book for Children (Oxford)
Also in Secondary English Book 3, Macmillan and Secret Leopard, Alyscamps (Paris), 2005

Walk With This Spirit
(A meeting of the Kingscliff-Cudgen Reconciliation Circle)

No wonder it's called Rosella Tomato Sauce —
they're that red, lined up on the wide rail.
But their yellow-green wings can't be compared
to any tree or grass, or even the ferns
crowding up and over the high verandah
They are unique, and have their own colour.
Bright. Bold. In your face
like the big Reconciliation badge I wear:
red, green and yellow, black and white.

"Walking Together" it says. And we sit together,
a circle of Australians, indigenous and non.
We sit together talking, even after the last light
strikes the opposite hill in a sudden blaze.
We're dreaming up a monument,
a reminder of who came first —
something to touch, like the rock or tree
that has always been the place
to speak to ancestral spirits.
We dream it could heal all hearts.
We invent phrases, like, "Walk with this spirit."

Somebody mentions earth.
Grey beard, gentle eyes, brown face,
a man of measured words.
"What do you mean exactly when you say earth?"
I ask, flushed and earnest, wanting to get it right.
"Australia? This bit of land? Or the whole planet?"
For the first time, he stammers.
"All that. The earth supports us.
She is our Mother!" His eyes fill with tears.
We fall silent. On the rail, the Rosellas jostle.
The forested valley begins to grow dark.
We sit together, sipping coffee, watching
one green patch of shared, beloved earth.

© Rosemary Nissen-Wade 2000
First published
Secret Leopard: New and selected poems 1974-2005, Alyscamps Press (Paris) 2005


Responses to Rosemary's poetry

For more poetry by Rosemary, go to her poetry blogs, The Passionate Crone, Enheduanna's Daughter, and her 'mindful writing' blog, Stones for the River.