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"Swipe Left" by Issam Zineh, read by the poet

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

Issam Zineh’s poem “Swipe Left to View the Same Image in Visible Light,” which appears in Vol. 7, Issue 1, positions the reader on the “fine line / between looking and not looking.” Riffing off these lines originally from poet Jenny Molberg, Zineh adds there’s a line “even finer still” between “the thing said and left unsaid,” a parsing that leads the speaker to an unsettling association:

there’s an expression in Arabic that translates to either shoot him or break his brain the closest equivalent to a bull in a china shop with room for interpretation

For many, like myself, the indeterminacy of language often feels like freedom; however, in Zineh’s lines one gets the sense that it is this “room for interpretation” that allows for violence. After all, as Zineh points out in the following lines, how we interpret the actions or words of another is based less on objective truth and more on subjective perception:

avoidance can look something like intention from the outside my therapist says liberation comes from writing down the details

These lines demonstrate Zineh’s artful use of form to position the reader in the discomfort of hanging on the “fine line” between two things; as I read, I’m unable to say whether the therapist said “avoidance can look….” or if they said “liberation comes from….” or both. I’m uncertain.

Zineh capitalizes on this uncertainty by describing a scenario in which “room for interpretation” creates opportunity for violence:

liberation comes from writing down the details in one context what is expected in another means a public death

My sense is that these lines reference the violent suppression that is used by repressive regimes that silence those who might truth-tell in ways that destabilize power. For some, telling the truth may be emotionally freeing, but in oppressive circumstances, simply telling the truth may result in execution.

In light of this could-go-either-way-ness, the poet notes:

how willing we must have been to take that chance

Again, while I’m not sure who this “we” might be, I note that the speaker includes themselves within this group of people who have taken the chance of speaking despite the risk, despite the chance that writing down the details could lead to violence. There’s room for interpretation and, thus, room for the violence of mistaken intension.

The next lines of the poem expand the scope of risk as Zineh asks us to consider “what came before you that you forgot you inherited,” “what came of an imagined wolf whistle,” “what became of that girl who lost a tooth in her dad’s knuckle.” Each of these descriptions evokes for me the “it could be otherwise” energy of this poem; hanging on the fine line, I see that things for myself and my “we” could be completely different if my actions or words were interpreted differently.

While I may be willfully misreading the poem into more optimism than it wants to render, I can’t help but see something hopeful in the question that lives in the heart of the poem’s final lines:

take for one final instance what might come from a split second of noticing the gaze in its violent shimmering—a knife in the grass—

Zineh’s poem is born out of the space between poet Jenny Molberg’s two lines, which serve as the first and last line of the poem; as such, I’d like to think this poem is “what might come from a split second of noticing” by a poet who looks for what might live between the lines of another poet’s work. Additionally, Zineh’s title references “visible light,” the spectrum of light that is visible to the human eye. If I am to swipe left to view an image in “visible light,” this means I am taking an action to make something perceptible to me, to notice the knife in the grass, to notice the violence of the gaze, the subjectivity of my interpretation. Thus, even as there’s a tension in these last lines, rooted in a state of ambiguity and risk, I also want to notice there’s possibility, that seeing might become — in a split second — some kind of saving grace.

— Ruth Williams


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