Speculative Poetry

So Chicago Literati published five of my poems today, and it felt like a celebration. Not that my poems haven’t been published elsewhere, they have been – often, and in a variety of different literary magazines and websites. But this group of poems to me really feels like that start of a collection. For a long time I have admired speculative poets. I’ve also admired genre poets who write Fantasy and SciFi poetry, some great examples of poets that have inspired me are Matt Bialer (whose most collection – Tell Them What I Saw was published recently by PS Publishing,) Tracy Brimhall (whose collection Our Lady of the Ruins,) was a true inspiration, and also poets like Roz Kaveney (who I heard speak about genre poetry at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton last year and she truly inspired me as well.) All three poets are really different in style, but I admired them for different reasons.

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It was hard for me to break out of realism. It’s hard for me in general because even though I studied Poetry in university, I started out as a Nonfiction Writer – I loved Literary Nonfiction – so much so that I combined it with a history degree. But I’m a big lover and reader of fantasy. It’s been a process this year. In my poetry at least, I’ve been trying to break free, trying to be a little less afraid not to tell the truth. I’ve been working on it in my fiction too – with a collection of short stories that are based in magical realism and that have speculative elements, but this is really the first set of poems that I am truly proud of.

I feel, for the first time since I started writing poetry again (after a long hiatus of about ten years,) that I’ve really found my voice and that these poems are the beginning of a collection. They are five poems that tell a story, they all speak to each other, they are all sort of set in the same “village” in my mind, they describe the desert and the surrounding area in which I live, but they take elements of that natural world and play with them, all in all I’m just super excited about them.

You can read them here:  http://chicagoliterati.com/2014/06/18/five-poems-by-rena-rossner/

 

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Blog Hop: What Do I Write and Why?

Helen Maryles Shankman, author of one of my favorite books I read this year: The Color of Light, a sweeping and romantic Jewish vampire novel about the Wissotzky Tea family and some incredible art and the Holocaust, graciously tagged me to come along on this blog hop. Be sure to visit her blog at helenmarylesshankman.com!

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What am I working on:
Well, my novel MASTER OF THE MIRACLES is out on submission with my agent (the fabulous Josh Getzler) and in the meantime, I’ve been writing a series of linked short stories about the mystical city of Safed – they all have elements of magical realism and Jewish fantasy in them, and hopefully it will all come together in a collection at some point. (Here are some examples: Kissing the Messiah, The 614th Prophet, The Ari) my more recent ones include a story (forthcoming in an anthology) about the 12 dancing princesses retold as a zombie story, (oh, and the princesses are yeshiva students.) I recently wrote one about a little girl named Malka who raises a dybbuk army.

I’m also working on a Middle Grade Science Fiction story that is sort of like: The Truman Show meets The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds mixed with a little bit of Walk Two Moons.

Then there’s the BIG SECRET YA FANTASY SERIES PROJECT (in which I’m struggling with voice in a big way so I’ve put it aside for now) but it involves the retelling of some of my favorite stories, and that is all I’m going to say about that.

And a crazy post-apocalyptic vampires vs werewolves novel set in the Holy Land which I’m calling Jim Butcher meets The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but it remains to be seen if I can pull it off.

I also really want to write a magical realism series of Urban Fantasy Cozy Mysteries set in Jerusalem’s shuk with a coffee-ground reader who runs a café, but that’s only in planning stages for now.

Here and there I write poems too.

I like to keep busy.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
This is why Helen Maryles Shankman and I are friends because she said: “I wish I belonged to a genre! I seem to hopscotch around Horror, Jewish Fiction, Magical Realism, Paranormal Romance, and Literary Fiction.” I guess the only one of those that doesn’t apply to me is Horror. Yes: Fantasy, Jewish Fiction, Literary Fiction, Urban Fantasy, Paranomal Romance, Biblical Fiction, Upmarket Women’s Fiction, Magical Realism and SciFi, and also Young Adult and Middle Grade Fiction.

My work is different than others because I feel I bring a really authentic voice to my work that’s not just Jewish, but part-Israeli, steeped in a deep familiarity with biblical sources and a knowledge of Jewish tradition across the spectrum of Jewish observance. I’m also a poet (and I think the best novelists were poets first,) and you can see that in my work. I love language, especially lyrical language, and that’s reflected in the way I write.

Why do I write what I write?

Well, MASTER OF THE MIRACLES is a novel that I’d been taking notes about for the past 15 years. It’s the story of Bruriah, but set in both the present day and the Mishnaic Era, but it also explores the idea of Jewish stigmata – it’s part historical fiction, part literary fiction, and part fantasy, and its a super-feminist novel – and that’s almost all you need to know about me.

I don’t think I can run from how Jewish I am so I don’t try to. Almost all my fiction is Jewish fiction. I’ve also written a biblical cookbook called EATING THE BIBLE, which speaks to my love of food and my love of the rich heritage of Jewish texts (and food!) that I grew up on. I think that all my work involves women who break stereotypes – religious, Jewish, societal and otherwise – which also probably says a lot about me.

How does my writing process work?
When I’m seriously working on a project I have to do it the Nanowrimo Way: 1000 words a day. More than that is a miracle. I force myself not to write less than 500 words a day at the bare minimum – but that only happens in spurts of 2-3 months at a time and then I need a break. I’m also a mom to 5 kids so…yeah. It’s not really possible in the long-term. I always write at night. Late at night. I’m a night owl. I need my house to be asleep and quiet and then I slink into my bedroom and crawl under the covers, prop my laptop on my lap, and enter my writing “cave.”  Sometimes I lock myself in. With coffee.

On to the tagging!

I want to tag two of my clients (since I am both an agent and an author) - I am so proud of them and so in love with what they write. I’ll add their blog posts when they get around to them:

LEAH SCHEIER, is the author of THE SECRET LETTERS (Disney-Hyperion, 2012) and now, YOUR VOICE IS ALL I HEAR is forthcoming from Sourcebooks Fire in Spring 2015. Her website is: http://www.leahscheier.com

RACHEL MARKS is the author of DARKNESS BRUTAL, the first book in a YA Urban Fantasy Series. Watch this space for news!! She’s also an incredibly artist. Her website is: http://www.rachelannemarks.com

And one more who is not a client but is a dear friend: Kristin Gleeson. Not only has she published two books in the past year, but they are in two different genres! Literary Fiction: Selkie Dreams, and Non-Fiction Biography: Anahareo: Wilderness Spirit. Read more about her and her works in progress here:  http://www.kristingleeson.com/blog

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On Historical Fiction, Epic Fantasy, and Knowing Your Stuff

I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing this month. Partly because it’s Nanowrimo season, partly because I’m always thinking about my writing. But maybe this month I’m thinking a little more.

For most of my life I have been captivated by stories of the fantastic. Though my taste skewed more to the fantasy side of things, SciFi crept in there too – as it has been known to do (and vice verse with SciFi readers and fantasy,) but for some reason when I studied  writing in University I took only classes in Non-Fiction and Poetry. I even declared a triple major: Non-Fiction Writing, Poetry, and History. And I thought that was my triumvirate.

I never took a class in fiction.

Fiction scared me. Fiction was MAKING STUFF UP.

Of course, that’s part of what I was doing in poetry, and in non-fiction writing, and even in history, because telling it like you see it – any take we have on the world – is inevitably a fiction of sorts. But even though I loved fantasy with all my heart, I didn’t think I could write it.

I knew I had a way with words. And I had interesting things to say, but I felt dwarfed by the greats, and I looked around me and thought, the world is far too interesting to make stuff up, I can just describe what I see. And I did so, but in poetry and prose. No dragons or monsters, no golems or dybbuks, no fairies or wizards or trolls or witches.

For ten years I wrote non-fiction. For ten years I was a pen for hire. And it took me ten years to realize that was all I was. And I say this with the greatest respect for journalists and non-fiction writers out there. Literary journalism and literary non-fiction will always have a very special place in my heart, for it’s what I strove to write for years. But slowly I began to realize that fiction is just non-fiction in another guise. And I realized that speculative fiction encompasses much more than just fantasy.

And so without even one fiction workshop under my belt I set out to write a novel. There was a tingling of magical realism in there but no more than that, I couldn’t allow myself that. And then I wrote another novel which could have been and may still end up being completely speculative, but I still wrote in some psychology, some window to explain the unexplainable.

At the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton two weeks ago I attended a panel about historical fiction and epic fantasy. Two of the women on the panel had PhDs in history. (I was particularly impressed by Helen Marshall who won the “Best Newcomer” award)  And as I listened to everyone talk about all the research that informs their work I realized that what separates historical fiction from epic fantasy is but a hairs breath. That the same work that goes into one is needed for the other. And I had this epiphany moment that I realized: everything in my life has led me to this point.

I have a masters degree in history. I have a keen eye for narrative description and observation. I have lyric language from poetry. I CAN write the stories that I grew up loving. I just have to make that leap of faith.

The difference between the true and the fantastic – between science fiction and science fact, between history and myth and fantasy and reality, is really just a hairs breath. And I have everything I need to take the plunge.

I’ve been working on a series of linked short stories about the city of Safed (also called Tzfat or Tsfat) and I’ve been writing stories set in that mystical city – almost every one so far could have been a dream or a vision: Kissing the Messiah (in which a young woman has sexual encounters with Elijah the Prophet), The 614th Prophet (in which a wannabe vegetarian prophet tries to sacrifice a goat, and succeeds but not in way that you’d expect), The Ari (forthcoming from The Rampallian, which tells a tale of the ghost lion of Safed), and a few more as-yet unpublished ones. But last night I wrote about zombies.

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Mickey Hart in Jerusalem and the Things You Miss as an Expat

So I haven’t blogged in a while which all sort of boils down to one major thing: life. To say that I’ve been crazy busy is an understatement. I’ve been approving the final proofs of my cookbook: Eating the Bible (available here!) and coming out in November, I spent quite a few weeks editing my novel: Master of the Miracles, before it went out on submission with my new agent, Josh Getzler. A co-worker decided to come back from maternity leave, but in a different capacity, and I’ve taken on all her clients. In short, total madness. And I’ve also been reading non-stop. Queries, submissions, manuscripts, books in Hebrew and English, and I’ve been busy trying to get my author-clients published (but August has been a very quiet month on that front…)

But today I had to blog to talk about something unrelated to books or publishing.

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Last night we went to hear Mickey Hart play at the Hebrew University Amphitheater in Jerusalem. Now, I bought tickets to this MONTHS ago, the second I heard it announced, and I’d been looking forward to it all summer. But what I experienced last night was beyond words.

I’m a huge fan of the Grateful Dead. I have been since my sister first introduced me to the band when I was 12. But I’m part of a generation that never got to see Jerry Garcia live. I remember the day he died, I was 16 and working at a science summer camp and I hadn’t gotten the chance to see a concert live yet. It’s one of my greatest regrets in life.

Last night Mickey Hart came to Jerusalem. And I saw his band live, and the second song they played was Chinacat Sunflower – my favorite song. I cried when the song played, not just because it caught me so unexpectedly – the second song of the night – and bam! My favorite song. But because for me, to hear Mickey Hart play in Jerusalem, the city of my heart, and to be standing there, outdoors, overlooking the Judean Desert and hearing my favorite song – LIVE, was more than I could hold inside.

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Now I know I’m totally fan-girling, which is not something I normally do about something other than books, but I need to explain something deeper and bigger. When you move to Israel (or any other country other than your birth-place,) you give up a hell of a lot. You also gain a lot, which is, I suppose, why we make the move to begin with. But, sometimes you really really miss the things you give up. And while they may not life-or-death types of things, and while intellectually you know that what you gained is way more important than what you gave up, you still miss those things tremendously. Examples:

What I miss: Old Navy (places where jeans cost less than $50, especially for kids, and jeans the actually fit, that are good quality and that are sized for all types of people and kids, specifically, where I can buy “curvy” jeans for me, and “husky” jeans for my 11-year-old and often for only $12), Target (I don’t think that needs elaboration…LOL), American Grocery Stores (that carry all sorts of products I miss, most specifically Crispix Cereal, but also Stonyfield Farms yogurt and a whole bunch of other things I won’t get into right now…), free, beautiful beaches, hotels that charge per room and not per child, cheap vacation options, camping spots with grass, water-front property, affordable cars and real-estate, large bookstores and bookstore cafes, and the list goes on…

What I’ve gained: the history of my people with every step that I walk, archaeology everywhere I go, the ability to bring the Bible to life for my kids with every breath we take, holy sites and cities that are part of my heritage, freedom from certain Western conventions about cleanliness (read: Purell obsessions – no offense to anyone intended) and allergies, basically, my kids get really dirty here and sometimes do non-hygienic things and they live to tell the tale. The freedom to wear flip-flops to synagogue, which really means, a very relaxed attitude to Judaism and religion, as in, it’s just a part of everything we do and so my kids just feel “normal” here, with no need or fear to hide their kippah (yarmulke) or tzitzit. Grocery stores where we can buy anything and everything in the entire store (as in EVERYTHING is kosher!), and we can eat in almost every restaurant in Jerusalem. So eating and ordering out is not something special that we do only from certain places, it’s just a normal part of life. The fact that my kids are fluent in Hebrew and English. The fact that there school textbooks teach them this history and geography of this land first – that geology is first about the rocks of the land of Israel. That my kids are growing up surrounded by a very diverse population base and they think that’s normal (their classes are a mix of Russian, Ethiopian, French, Hispanic, Yemenite, Morroccan and “white” or “Ashkenazi” kids). The incredible plethora of different types of cuisine and the world of Middle Eastern flavors that my kids are growing up with…and so much more.

Anyway. I think you get the point.

And then. Mickey Hart shows up. And, all I can say is that it’s a blessing. I feel blessed. The concert was incredible. And I was grateful that unlike some other musicians who have decided not to come here – from political pressure and perhaps other reasons, Mickey Hart came. And his message was simple: governments come and go, but music stays the same. Music unites. Music transcends boundaries. And I’m not going to get political and talk about why some musicians come and others don’t. All I can say is: when you come, you become a blessing to us.

I had tears in my eyes the whole night. Because sometimes you miss things, and sometimes you think about going back, and other times you don’t miss anything at all, but sometimes…when the things that you give up come to you, you feel like the luckiest person in the whole wide world.

mickey hart

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The Book Deluge That is Literary Agenting and Bulk Book Blogging

I have always read a ton. And when I mean a ton, I really mean A TON. As a reader, I would read. As a writer, I would read. As a bookstore employee, I would read. In university, I read a ton. As a mom, I still read. But nothing prepared me for the reading I would do as a foreign rights and literary agent.

Another thing, I ALWAYS finish books. I mean, ALWAYS. I think I could count on one hand the books that I didn’t finish…up until I started working in publishing. And now in addition to the never-ending stacks of books by my bed (and in the kitchen, and living room, and bathroom, and stairwell, and hallway) – having nothing to do with the bookcases in the bedroom, (and living room and kitchen and stairwell, and hallway and kids bedrooms…) now I am faced with SERIOUS MORAL DILEMMAS.

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Do I read:

1. A book whose foreign rights I am trying to sell (pitches with a personal recommendation ALWAYS get more requests – and I can be pretty convincing!)

2. A book in Hebrew or English by an author I might take on as a client

3. A book that might be a good comparison title to one of the books I am trying to sell for one of my clients

4. A book that I often see quoted or mentioned as a comparison title and it would be a really good idea to know what everyone is talking about

5. A book that will help me in my own research for my own writing projects

6. A book for my book club

7. A book that I simply just want to read because I love the author or it sounds great (even if…gasp! I don’t hold the foreign rights to the book and I can’t sell it which would mean that this is just pleasure reading…pure and simple.)

And of course, as you can imagine – category #7 is often what gets shunted to the side in favor of all the other books I could and SHOULD be reading.

Sigh.

Sometimes I look at all the books all around me and all the books and manuscripts on my kindle and I get paralyzed by it ALL.

ImageAnd never before have I had so many books surrounding me that are either face-down, or bookmarked somewhere in the middle – meaning I started it but…I didn’t finish. For the first time in my life I am surrounded by books I have abandoned mid-read. And I think it means two things:

1. Sometimes I would rather get a taste of something so I can at least sound like I know what I am talking about – rather than not read the book at all.

2. A book has to really grab my attention and keep it, in order for me to keep reading.

So many books, so little time, so many authors and writers and words vying for attention…and inevitably…the best ones win. That doesn’t mean that the books I stopped in the middle aren’t amazing books…it just means that something happened mid-read, something dragged somewhere, it could have been a page, or a paragraph, or my mood at the moment, but SOMETHING caused me to put that book down and NOT PICK IT BACK UP AGAIN. The horror.

ImageI came back from the London Book Fair sick with mono and CMV. So I have spent quite a lot of time reading this last month. So I am going to do a bulk book blog and tell you about the books I LOVED – the ones I couldn’t put down and read in almost one sitting…and the books that are half-finished (which I have decided that I am determined to finish this weekend…hopefully…)

THE AMAZING ONES:

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The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell – this book tells the story of two typists in the 1920s – when touch typing gave women an opportunity to enter offices and work-places that were previously male-only establishments – set against the backdrop of prohibition and speakeasies. The novel tells a tale that is somewhat of a addictive psychological thriller, but also a fabulous history lesson. The characterization and descriptions wowed me, and I read it in one sitting.

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The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison – first of all, let me just say that when I first read the description of this book I was not interested in reading it AT ALL. But I should have known. It’s an Algonquin book, and as a publishing house, they have NEVER let me down yet. I was hooked from page one, and read it in one sitting. It’s a novel about fatherhood and about tragedy, and about caring for others, and it blew me away.

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The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett – I knew I was going to read this book the second I found out it was partly set in Hay-On-Wye – the UK’s infamous “town of books” where I once tried to spend a day or two, and ended up staying a week (and having to buy an extra bag to cart away all of my purchases.) This book falls on the familiar trope of the undiscovered secret manuscript of a long-dead author (Shakespeare in particular) – and I love those types of books, but the book is also so much more – the love story and the relationship of the main character with his dead wife is heart-wrenching, and tragic, but told so tenderly and well, that it almost overshadowed the actual plot of the novel. I read it in one sitting.

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The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick – there was so much to like about this novel, but more than anything I loved the point of view from which it was told – the somewhat unreliable narrator whose life has been turned upside down – but you are quite ready to see the world through his eyes and you want to believe everything he tells you. It was sad, but it was also glorious, and full of so many truths and much sadness, but also lots of hope – lots of silver linings. I read it in…guess what? One sitting.

THE HALF-FINISHED ONES (which I will finish this weekend!):

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The Innocents by Francesca Segal – this book got SO MUCH HYPE! It was nominated for so many awards, it actually won three awards (the Costa Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award and the Samy Rohr Prize) but….I’m stuck at page 122. I wanted to love this book so much…but I lost interest.

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The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand by Gregory Galloway – I heard so many amazing things about this book – everywhere I went people were mentioning it, talking about it, on twitter, facebook, in reviews…I stopped on page 68. There wasn’t enough to keep me riveted, even though I liked what I read.

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The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker – so this book doesn’t really count as one of the books I didn’t finish because it lost my interest – this books is in a different catagory – this is a book I am loving so much that I don’t want it to end and I am savoring it, I am actually choosing to read this book slowly, and in truth, in the way it’s written, it sort of lends itself to that – alternating perspectives – and so much beautiful description – the inner torment of the characters – the meshing of all their very different lives…I will finish this one this weekend too, but I will be sad when it’s done…one of the best books I’ve read all year, but just not a page-turner in that sense, it’s a book that needs to be savored and enjoyed, one delicious page at a time.

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The Middlesteins by Jamie Attenberg – (I actually finished this book this morning…) but again, a book that got so much hype I knew I HAD to read it. I LOVED the beginning, but Edie’s slow descent into her own world of food and self-loathing was difficult to read and I did feel that somewhere in the middle the power of description displayed in the beginning of the book was sort of lost. But…it picked up and I loved the end, and Attenberg’s powers are back in full force. I’m really not sure why I got stuck in the middle, but I’m glad I returned to it and finished.

Of course, there are other books that read and enjoyed, and other books and manuscripts that I am in the middle of too…but if I told you about those I would have to kill you. Sigh…the life of a literary agent. (Or should I say book-slave?)

Wish me luck this weekend! I have books to finish!

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Catching up on Poetry – NaPoWriMo after the London Book Fair

Once the London Book Fair was in full swing I did not have the space or time to keep writing. I have spent the weekend trying to catch up.

I really want to say how amazing the NaPoWriMo blog has been – not only in encouraging writers to keep writing poetry every day this month -  but in posting truly fabulous inspiration and challenges that have taken me out of my comfort zone and gotten me to try to ideas and styles that not only have I loved, but feel compelled to return to after this is all over. In the meantime, I keep following and enjoying the challenges – not all of them, but most!

Here is the poem inspired by Day 20 – the challenge was to use 5 random words from a list and make it into a poem – I didn’t use the entire list, but I used most of it – more than 15 words – which was even more of a challenge.

Words

The owl absconds with my pencil
she flies upwind, my afternoon’s
work squandered, so I pour tea
that smells of clove and cinnamon
it’s a miraculous elixir, amber as
it pours out from the thermos, under
the watchful eye of the thief, cyclops
who stole to build a nest in some willowy
tree. The afternoon is mercurial, the air
scented, more seaweed than gutter, it changes
quickly, wind gusts like artillery fire, salt tang
of the sea on my tongue, the curl of my toes
in response to a chill burst, it is ego, elusive
in its quest to commune, twice I have been
confounded by a ghost, an owl once stole
my wedge of cheese, but left the truffle.
It is why I am still svelte.

The second challenge that I took on was quite unusual but a lot of fun – the challenge was in making what I wrote make sense afterwards. This challenge had us take a poem in a foreign tongue that we don’t know at all and “translate” it as best we could. I chose a poem entitled Delphi IV by Jos De Haes from Belgium.

Delphi 4

I suppose that the lake was hidden
blood-red over the silver sheen
flowing salvation, marred beneath
the poor vole sad and missed.

Over the ribbon of the iceberg
the ripples of the slavering deep
this stream runs alcoholic mergers
shot with starlings that won’t waken.

So many shimmers in the stream
blood-wingers plant still birth
- and on the bluff all’s in a tomb
of once haunted mounds of silk.

Blink once in the splintering wood
your glow and prime are coming
die there panning for the goldpost
on which they wrote in blood your name.

O children, my puppies, my wonder
we die cold in the ocean seas
and waken with a blood curse, standing
the dagger is a sword of sound.

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The Tryst – Poetry Noir

I’m in London now for the London Book Fair. I am under no illusion that I will be able to write a poem a day, but I’m having fun with this as I go, and trying to squeeze in some time here and there.

This is poetry noir – another genre I have never attempted. Great challenge. I had enough fun with this to even return to it again some time. The poem isn’t perfect but it was fun to write.

The Tryst
By Rena Rossner

Her hand trembles, she stabs at her eye
with a mascara wand. The lover on her bed
watches and takes a drag of cigarette, the ashes

fall. The phone rings. They stare
at it, but don’t pick up. The sound
of breathing fills the room. She pours

a drink. Shoots it down fast. It’s all
been done. She lies back down. He reaches
for his gun. They kiss, the metal cold

and hard against her slip. His car is down
below, for getaways and midnight trysts, for
endless stakeouts. But here its a freefall,

her arms a secret scar. Light edges in
from streetlamps, the rumble of a distant car.
The sound of laughter is like thunder, rising from

the hotel bar. Her ears against his shadowed chest.
There is no time for love. The knock is soft at first,
then harder, like the beating of her heart.

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