The Liv­ing Room, Rearranged

  • Review
By – April 29, 2024

In The Liv­ing Room, Rearranged, Yael Grun­seit uses the Baby­lon­ian Tal­mud — the basis of ancient Jew­ish law — to exam­ine her views on desire, sex­u­al­i­ty, and gen­der iden­ti­ty. Most of her book fol­lows the same for­mat as the Tal­mud, height­en­ing the ten­sion she’s try­ing to cre­ate. In fact, like the Tal­mud, some of the sen­tences are in a font so small that they’re dif­fi­cult to read. Instead of push­ing the read­er away, how­ev­er, the small font com­pels the read­er toward a clos­er read­ing of Grunseit’s thoughts.

The Liv­ing Room, Rearranged is a short but dense book. It’s com­posed most­ly of prose poet­ry that tells sto­ries about the protagonist’s rela­tion­ships with men and women. Some are real­is­tic; oth­ers are fan­ci­ful. Most have an erot­ic ele­ment. The com­mon thread across all of these sto­ries is a search for truth. The lan­guage is sim­ple but urgent — a dif­fi­cult blend to achieve. For exam­ple, in these few lines, the pro­tag­o­nist tries to com­mu­ni­cate with her lover:

Then she said, Tell me what you want. Tell me the Truth.” I scrunched up my nose. I took her words and put them inside this lit­tle box made of lead that’s buried in my brain. Lead absorbs sound. Her breast fell into mine and I could feel her lips say­ing those same words on my neck.

The book also con­tains poems that are not nec­es­sar­i­ly in con­ver­sa­tion with the Tal­mud. Grunseit’s lan­guage is always clear and direct, dri­ving home her demand for honesty:

No mat­ter how much we rearrange the liv­ing room,

cov­er the walls with collages

and the couch­es with cro­cheted blankets,

we both know all that happened.

Even though these sto­ries and poems often stand in stark con­trast to the Tal­mud, one nev­er gets the sense that Grun­seit is ques­tion­ing the impor­tance of the ancient text. Rather, she’s rein­ter­pret­ing it to make it rel­e­vant. She’s cre­at­ing her own midrash that focus­es on the ques­tions we have today: What’s the sig­nif­i­cance of gen­der? What’s desire — and how can it betray the kind of per­son we long to become?

Stew­art Flor­sheim’s poet­ry has been wide­ly pub­lished in mag­a­zines and antholo­gies. He was the edi­tor of Ghosts of the Holo­caust, an anthol­o­gy of poet­ry by chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors (Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1989). He wrote the poet­ry chap­book, The Girl Eat­ing Oys­ters (2River, 2004). In 2005, Stew­art won the Blue Light Book Award for The Short Fall From Grace (Blue Light Press, 2006). His col­lec­tion, A Split Sec­ond of Light, was pub­lished by Blue Light Press in 2011 and received an Hon­or­able Men­tion in the San Fran­cis­co Book Fes­ti­val, hon­or­ing the best books pub­lished in the Spring of 2011. Stew­art’s new col­lec­tion, Amus­ing the Angels, won the Blue Light Book Award in 2022.

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