Tissue by imtiaz Dharker

The poem is about different kinds of power: of things that are fragile - tissue as in paper, tissue as in skin; of things that are solid - such as buildings; and of the power of creation - the 'grand design' of the world.

Paper in well-read books gets thinner and more delicate, like tissue, the more often the pages are turned. Books have the power to make us understand things ('lets the light shine through') or change the way we see things ('could alter things').
In religious books, such as the Koran, the paper not only provides illumination, it is also a place where people record their family histories, 'who was born to whom ... who/died where and how...'. So, while people's lives are transient, their names and histories live on. Such is the power of paper.
Sometimes the power of paper can be harmful: 'borderlines' on maps, for example, which divide people, 'fine slips from grocery shops' that connote debt. These can all control our lives, 'like paper kites'.
In contrast, some things which we think are strong and permanent - like buildings - are actually fragile and vulnerable, something we might realise if they were paper and we could 'see how easily/they fall away on a sigh'
Other buildings are symbols of power, the power that governments, for example, have over people, 'through capitals and monoliths'.
An architect might subvert this power by building with paper instead of brick, letting 'daylight break/ ... through the shapes that pride can make'.
God is sometimes referred to as the architect of the universe and Dharker might be suggesting that the greatest power is that of God, who has made the most powerful creation of all: the 'grand design' of the world and of humans, which she refers to as 'living tissue'.


The poem has the form of nine quatrains; it ends with a single line. The mix of regularity (the quatrains) and irregularity (no rhyme, no definite metre, lines of varied length) could suggest that the 'grand design' of the universe has an element of uncertainty, unpredictability and diversity. The most important aspect of this design, human life, is highlighted in the single line that ends the poem; 'turned into your own skin'.


Dharker structures her poem by starting with the word 'paper' and ending with the word 'skin', and the ideas in between connect these two. This connection is reinforced by her repetition of the image of 'paper smoothed and stroked', at the beginning referring to paper, at the end referring to skin. In between, these two points, she moves between considering the nature of paper and the nature of buildings, both of which connect with humans and human civilisation. There are three sections created through her use of enjambment which link the verses: verses 1-3 are about books; verses 4-6 are about structures made by humans - buildings, maps, money; verses 7-9 plus the final line use the image of an architect designing buildings made of paper, to bring out the idea that human life and constructions are not permanent, but human values are.


Dharker uses symbolism throughout her poem: paper symbolises learning, history, culture, financial transactions and debt, human civilisation, and humans themselves. Bricks symbolise political control. Light and the sun symbolise knowledge, understanding, freedom.

Besides the imagery in the paper, Dharker uses maps to symbolise divisions between people (the 'borderlines') and connections ('roads, rail tracks'). She conveys her sadness at the destruction of humanity when buildings fall by personifying the building: 'they fall away on a sigh'. The possibility of freedom is suggested by the simile in which grocery slips 'might fly our lives like paper kites'. While we may be tethered by monetary things, in the same way kites are tied to the ground, we can still move and dance, as kites do in the air.

Dharker's lexis brings out the delicacy and fragility of paper. Adjectives to describe the paper, 'Transparent', 'fine', 'living', indicate that it needs care and protection. This is reinforced by the tenderness in her choice of verbs: 'smoothed', 'stroked', suggesting care and affection.

Her style is conversational: she seems to be thinking aloud, speculating to herself or to her listener (and it is only in the last line that there is a direct address to the reader through the use of the possessive pronoun 'your'). This style is created through her use of minor sentences (without a main verb) e.g. 'Maps too.' and the whole of verse 6.

Attitude and tone

Dharker's tone is musing: she uses conditionals such as 'If' and the modal verbs 'might' and 'could' to convey possibility. Like the tissue she uses as her main image, her ideas are not fixed; she explores her ideas, just as paper is used to explore ideas in writing, in drawing, in creating.

Although there are references to negative aspects of human life and civilisation, Dharker's attitude is ultimately hopeful. The first section is about the positive aspects of human life, the last section looks forward to a more positive future.


Created with images by stevepb - "light lamp bedside lamp" • Unsplash - "study read book" • Iqbal Osman1 - "map, India, Asia" • katiazorzenone - "sky kites freedom" • rduta - "Grocery Receipt" • fekaylius - "wtcoutline" • Ralph Hockens - "World Trade Center" • cliff1066™ - "Detroit Free Press, Detroit, Michigan" • kwanie - "Monolith" • monkeyatlarge - "Capitol" • Wokandapix - "blueprint ruler architecture" • skeeze - "earth space moon" • HolgersFotografie - "baby sweet happy"

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