Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘Tissue’ is a difficult poem – there’s no way around it. So many of my students panic about it and have nightmares that it’s going to come up on the exam. Even teachers get stressed and worry whether they’re teaching it properly, I had a conversation once with a teacher who had been to a lecture by Dharker herself on ‘Tissue’, and she still felt like she had no idea what this poem is about! But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Personally, although it is an abstract and symbolic poem, I feel that there are some very clear messages and meanings behind it – when you focus on these, all of your analysis and interpretations will fall into place in an essay.
To summarise my understand before we begin, ‘Tissue’ is a poem that considers both meanings of the title – paper and living cell tissue – in a variety of ways. The speaker progresses through connotations, images, and memories that spring to mind when she thinks of the word ’tissue’. As the poem unfolds, this exploration symbolically comes to represent a few key ideas:
- Humans are weak and fragile, the structures we build are also weak when viewed from a long term perspective.
- In contrast, spiritual and/or natural structures are everlasting, they are far more flexible and have lasting power because of this flexibility. I say ‘spiritual and/or natural’ because for Dharker as a religious person these are the same thing, she sees nature as a representation of God’s creation on earth. For a more secular or atheistic reader, they may interpret this point as ‘humans vs nature’ rather than ‘humans vs god’.
- Paper and writing are one of the few human creations which have the ability to transcend time and space; for instance, we can read words that were written by people long dead from hundreds or even thousands of years ago, or a person writing in one country can have a captive audience across the world.
The notes below are tailored towards GCSE, IGCSE, and A-Level students, but they are suitable for anyone studying the poem at a higher level (KS3 and above), particularly on the following exam boards: AQA, OCR, WJEC / Eduqas, Edexcel, CCEA.
If you find this analysis useful, you can take a look at our full AQA Power and Conflict Poetry course here.
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“Paper that lets the light
shine through, this
is what could alter things.
Paper thinned by age or touching…”Imtiaz Dharker
(Full poem unable to be reproduced due to the copyright)
Alter – change.
Thinned – made thinner.
Koran – the primary Islamic religious text which all Muslims study and follow, similar to the Bible, but one which contains the teachings of the prophet Muhammed.
Histories – the accounts of past events and times.
Sepia – a soft red-brown colour, the colour used in old photographs.
Transparent – see through.
Rail tracks – the lines of a railway system that trains travel along.
Mountain folds – the shapes that mountain makes, but also an origami term for a piece of paper folded in half downwards to look like a mountain.
Slips – pieces of paper.
Architect – somebody who designs buildings and structures, although this term is also used to refer to the idea of a Creator, a god.
Luminous – illuminated, glowing – the phrase ‘luminous script’ also alludes to Medieval illuminated manuscripts, some of the very first books, whose pages were handcrafted by skilled monks and decorated with painted borders.
Capitals – letters of the alphabet written in UPPER CASE, but also the name of the principal cities in countries.
Monoliths – stone pillars, but also the name for large and well-established social, corporate or political structures in society.
Pride – a feeling of great happiness that comes when thinking of achievements or accomplishments – this can be attached to yourself, others, or even to an entire country or nation, on a less positive note pride can also lead to a person being delusional or overconfident if not properly controlled.
A grand design – usually the words we use to refer to the idea that the universe was deliberately constructed by a Creator – either a god or a group of gods depending on the religion.
Paper that lets the light shine through, this is what could change things. Paper thinned by time and aging or made thin by being touched too much, (Stanza 2) the kind of paper that you find in well-used books, the back of the Koran, where somebody’s hand has written in the names and histories – the names and histories of the people who owned the Koran as it passed down generations – who was born to which family, (Stanza 3) their height and weights, who died, where they died and how, on which ancient date in history, pages smoothed and stroked and worn thin until they were transparent because so many people gave them attention. (Stanza 4) If buildings were made of paper, I might be able to feel how they move with the air currents, I could see how easily they fall away when a person sighs on them, how they shift and change in the direction of the wind. (Stanza 5) And maps too. The sun shines through the bordered lines of countries, it shines through the marks on the map made by rivers, railways, roads, mountains which fold like origami paper (Stanza 6) these are like fine, thin slips of paper that you get as receipts from grocery shops that tell you how much was sold and what was paid by credit card – these kinds of papers might control our lives, flying them like paper kites. (Stanza 7) An architect could use all these pieces of paper, place layer over layer, glowing words over numbers over the line, and never want to build things again with brick (Stanza 8) or block, but let the dawn and morning light shine through capital cities and rigid structures, through the shapes that pride can make, an architect could find a way to trace a grand design – to understand the structures used by God himself – (Stanza 9) with living tissue, an architect could create a structure that was never meant to last or paper smoothed and stroked and thinned to be transparent (Stanza 10) an architect could create a human; they could turn this paper into your skin.
The speaker of the poem seems to likely be Dharker herself, as it adopts a personal tone that explores her own thoughts, impressions, and emotions as she considers the physical and metaphorical significance of the word ‘tissue’. She uses the personal pronoun ‘I’ part way through the poem in Stanza 4: ‘If buildings were paper, I might / feel their drift’. This shift in perspective also creates a tonal shift as the poem starts by exploring general thoughts and ideas, becoming more detailed and specific as it progresses. The use of direct address ‘you’ at the beginning of the poem is used in an offhand way – ‘the kind you find’ could quite easily be ‘the kind one finds’ or ‘the kind a person can find’. However, the same technique applied at the end of the poem becomes truly direct and personal by that point in the final stanza, the single line ‘turned into your skin’. Though there are different ways to interpret this line, the most compelling interpretations seem to be the one suggested by Dharker herself: “In the end, there’s one “tissue” which is the most important of all – more than maps, money, building plans – and it’s the one we forget to look after – “your skin”. “Your” to emphasise we should watch out for each other, not just ourselves.”
Symbolism – ‘Tissue’ paper is used as a symbol throughout the poem to represent various aspects of life and humanity. At first, it is a metaphor for the fragile structures of humanity, our political and social systems that seem so rigid but which easily fade or dissolve over time: ‘Paper that lets the light / shine through, this / is what could alter things’. The abstract noun ‘things’ is deliberately vague and difficult to interpret, leaving the reader to wonder what exactly may be altered. As the poem progresses, we realise that the symbol of light as a spiritually illuminating and purifying force is equally important, it is often used to represent the divine, truth or pure and complete knowledge. The transparency of tissue allows light to filter through it; this combination is how change occurs in any natural or manmade form – slowly, through a semipermeable membrane, ideas and thoughts have the power to change society. Slowly, through air and erosion, old structures and buildings will fade, and new ones can be created in their place.
Semantic field of paper – ‘tissue’, ‘paper’, ‘books’, ‘pages’, ‘maps’, ‘slips’, ‘kites’ – paper appears in many forms within the poem, encouraging us to consider the many different applications of this material. Always, it is fragile or easily worn thin, a degradable and changeable material rather than something fixed or permanent. The way in which humans use paper is examined from an anthropological perspective, as Dharker considers the way in which the use of paper has allowed us to advance our society by creating ‘books’, ‘maps’, ‘slips’ (receipts), and ‘kites’.
Extended metaphor – ‘Fine slips from grocery shops…might fly our lives like a paper kites’ – the poem uses an extended metaphor of paper to present an anti-capitalist viewpoint: Dharker seems critical of the way in which receipts and records of money, ‘slips from grocery shops’ determine our own value and worth as human beings – they ‘might fly our lives like paper kites’, a simile which suggests we are tethered to our money and finances, there’s no way to escape them in the modern world.
Title – The title ‘Tissue’ has a double entendre (a double meaning). Firstly, it refers to tissue paper – a delicate kind of paper that is elegant and often used for decorating or wrapping presents. However, ‘tissue’ when referred to scientifically is also a biological term for the cellular material which is contained within living organisms (animals and humans have ‘tissue’ made up of groups of cells in their bodies). Dharker draws on both of these meanings throughout the poem.
Opening – ‘Paper that lets the light / shine through, this / is what could alter things.’ – The poem opens with the thought that paper – a translucent solid material that can be permeated by light, could ‘alter’ or change things because it is a thin structure that seems fragile or pliable. One interpretation is that paper has a lot of power in itself: the words and thoughts that we write down can be read by others, and in this way, ideas can travel through space and time, beliefs can be created or changed too in this way, once enough humans start to accept the new idea that they read, which sparks a ‘light’ that illuminates their minds. We can also interpret this line differently; if we view the motif of paper symbolically then the opening lines also explore the idea that structures are fragile, they can be worn thin with time or constant attention, until light can pass through them and eventually they break down. Light itself, another motif, is also symbolic, representing – as it does in many poems and works of literature – the realms of pure spirituality, thought, or emotion. Light is often associated with knowledge or a divine presence. In this sense, we could interpret the opening line to mean that knowledge or divinity can break through the pre-established structures of this world – everything that seems to have been built to last by humans, our politics, our culture, and our social systems, can be challenged or even destroyed by new ideas or from tapping into a spiritual and divine presence.
Caesura / Enjambment – ‘Maps too. The sun shines through / their borderlines,’ – the visual image of the sun shining through the paper of a map is metaphorical, as the sunlight blurs and eventually obscures the edges of the borders of countries on the map, Dharker is using this image to suggest that light – a spiritually purifying force – is far more eternal and powerful than the structures of mankind. We may create borders and delineate countries and mark out territories that are ‘foreign’ or familiar, yet Dharker feels that a God would not see these same distinctions, viewing us all as one collective humanity rather than belonging to one country or the other. The use of caesura to create a long pause through using a full stop after the short sentence ‘Maps too.’ emphasises the brevity and transience of human life and human endeavours, showing just how short and unnatural our beliefs about borders and boundaries are. In contrast, the image of the sun enjambs over the line, it ‘shines through / their borderlines’, showing that there is a kind of strength and eternal power in the fluidity of the sunlight, which is contrasted with the fragility and weakness of the rigid structures imposed superficially by men upon the earth.
Ending – ‘turned into your skin.’ – The final sections of the poem explore the idea of an ‘architect’ that could use ‘all this’ imagery in the poem to construct a human being. This references the way in which a God (or nature, for non-religious people) can create something far more complex than anything that humans create, by building humans themselves. However, it also asks us to reconsider all of the imagery of the poem in reverse: all these fragments and pieces of paper, the social structures, physical buildings, maps and borders, receipts and kites, Korans and religious texts – together these fragments show aspects of humanity and tell us something about what it means to be human.
Dharker has both Pakistani and Scottish cultural backgrounds, so she has an Eastern and Western heritage and can understand both perspectives on life. The poem explores her own Islamic upbringing and personal approach to spirituality. ‘Tissue’ was partly inspired by Dharker’s own experience, when she looked in the back of her Koran and saw that her father had written her own date of birth in the tissue paper there.
Many of Dharker’s poems explore multicultural experiences, or try to capture a double perspective – ‘Tissue’ is the first poem in a larger collection, titled ‘The Terrorist at my Table’ (2006), which explores the conflict between Western and Eastern cultures, following the aftermath of 2001’s September 11 terrorist attacks.
At the time of writing, Dharker’s partner was dying from cancer, and so the poem’s exploration of the fragility of life and the transience of earthly structures – both natural and manmade – may reflect Dharker’s own internal psychological state, she is perhaps processing and coming to terms with the sense of grief and loss that is about to come.
Many of Dharker’s poems and artistic works also explore the tensions between religious and secular ways of thinking. She describes herself as a ‘Muslim Calvinist’, meaning that her spiritual beliefs are a fusion of Islam and Christianity. This is present in the symbolism of the poem, which fuses images of the Qur’an (Koran) and the Bible through the symbolism of ‘light’, This motif is typically used in the Bible to represent Jesus and the presence of God; Jesus said ‘I am the light of the world, whoever follows me shall not walk in darkness’. Equally, The Qur’an uses the term ‘Nūr’ to represent the ‘light of God’, a primal light that was created at the beginning of the world itself, which also refers to God and his prophet Muhammed. The synthesis of these religions through drawing attention to the fact that both use light to represent ultimate spiritual truth and influence suggests that Dharker is trying to find a way to reconcile the different cultures and religions, which seem to be in conflict during her lifetime but which also are all very much a part of herself and her own identity – she cites Pakistani, Scottish, British, Welsh and Indian influences all as deeply instrumental in her own upbringing.
Words, ideas, and thoughts are more powerful than anything physical – the way in which information travels through time and space on pieces of paper is shown to be quite remarkable in the poem; Dharker speaks of the ‘histories’ of the ‘Koran’, not just the history behind the text or those within it, but the personal history of that single book that she has which connects her back to her ancestors and cultural roots and heritage, through the way in which names and birth dates have been recorded there to show how it has passed down through her family. The receipts too may seem insignificant, but they have power over people, they say ‘what was paid by credit card’ and ‘how much was sold’, referencing the capitalistic free-market economy which governs the Western world – this implies that bookkeeping and accounting is a fundamental part of the way in which our world functions, and that people’s own lives are determined largely by their wealth and purchasing power.
Large political and corporate structures control and oppress the lives of individuals – There is a sense of tension and conflict between the ‘monoliths’ of society – the all-powerful and faceless corporations or political parties that govern over and impose impositions upon the freedom of individuals – and the everyday people of the poem, who read the Koran or buy groceries from their local stores. Dharker seems to criticise these large structures, though she is also positive and hopeful that with time ‘light’ – knowledge and spirituality – will break down even the largest of manmade entities. These structures are described as ‘the shapes that pride can make’, implying that they are built on weak and evil principles – ‘pride’ may be an allegorical reference to the Seven Deadly Sins of the Bible, as it is thought of in many religions as anti-spiritual, selfish and hubristic.
Writers are like architects with words – the ‘architect’ in the poem likely refers to the idea of a God or Creator, as it explores the way in which humans and humanity can be produced out of the world. Yet there is also an implicit sense that poets and writers themselves are kinds of creators, they craft worlds and thoughts through words – certainly with the references to ‘luminous / script’ and the pages of the Koran being ‘worn thin’, there is a sense of the spiritual connection between poetry and religion, the way in which literature can be used for political or spiritual purposes.
No matter how hard we try to control the world around us, human structures will always be temporary when compared with the natural structures created by a higher power – whether the reader of the poem is religious or not, Dharker herself comes from a religious background and so this must be respected in order to fully understand the poem. There is a sense of a higher power, an ‘architect’ or deity with a far more ‘grand design’ for the world than any transient human being could ever have. The poem suggests that human power and human perspective is certainly flawed and very limited when it comes into direct conflict with the Divine, the ‘light’ in the poem represents a spiritual force that permeates all life on earth, and which has a peaceful but eternal power, being fluid and able to travel through earthly structures with ease. In contrast, the buildings, cities, countries, financial structures, political structures, and all other human constructs which we consider to be so powerful are shown to be very temporary and fragile because of their rigidity and inflexibility. Recently on her Twitter account, Dharker stated that the poem “Follow[s] three sets of images: 1 fragile tissue/human skin set against 2 rigid structures (social, religious, national) that can cause conflict, and 3 light that breaks through. The poem explores how we might avoid conflict by valuing things that tell the real story of our lives.”
- God vs Man
- The Present vs History
- Individualism vs Collectivism
- Eastern vs Western culture
POSSIBLE ESSAY QUESTIONS
- Compare how poets present conflict between individuals and larger social or political entities in ‘Tissue’ and one other poem from your anthology.
- Compare the conflict and tension between cultures in ‘Tissue’ and one other poem from the collection.
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