Imtiaz Dharker, born in 1954, is a contemporary poet who was born in Pakistan and moved to Glasgow before the age of one. In addition to her poetry, Dharker is also a documentary maker and artist. She identifies herself as a ‘Scottish Muslim Calvinist’, showing her mixed cultural experiences and beliefs. Her multi-cultural background has informed much of her work and she explores themes such as identity, home and searching for meaning.
This poem explores both the strength and fragility of human life through the extended metaphor of tissue paper. Within the poem, the poet considers the many different uses of paper, demonstrating the impact they can have and their integral links to human life: paper can change things and record memories; people’s lives are mapped by paper; there are key links to journeys, money and homes. The poem ends with a direct link to ‘living tissue’ to imply the importance of human life, but also the vulnerability of it; human life can outlive buildings and paper, but there is also the suggestion that, like these items, human life too cannot last forever.
The title ‘Tissue’ has a number of different connotations.
One is a literal reference to tissue paper and the ways that paper can be used, such as in books for recording information over many years. The poet explores the fragility of the paper that allows fleeting information to be captured and stored, therefore giving it power and impact.
Another interpretation from the title is human tissue and how the human body in many ways has similarities to paper, through the fact that skin ages and the way life leaves it mark on the body.
The poem has ten stanzas that do not have a regular rhyme and have irregular line lengths. This could symbolise the fragility of the tissue paper and the unpredictability of life.
The stanzas are all four lines long. However, the final stanza is one single line that highlights the links between tissue paper and human skin and their significance. It also emphasises the clear ending of the poem and might show how there is an end to all things, including paper and human life in old age.
Enjambment is used from one line to the next and from one stanza to the next, perhaps mimicking the flow of paper and also the ongoing nature of human life, shown also through the fact that the line lengths vary throughout. Significantly, the line lengths noticeably decrease towards the end of the poem, symbolising human life and its decline.
Ideas and Language
The poet uses an extended metaphor throughout the poem, using tissue paper to symbolise human life.
The poem is opened with religious connotations through reference to ‘light’ and how this can ‘alter things’. The idea here is the significance of paper and the impact it has on human life – such as when people are able to find enlightenment in religious texts. The ‘paper thinned by age’ represents how paper can have an impact by being seen by many different people over time. However, this also explores the impact of age on tissue, given that skin becomes thinner as we grow older just as paper thins and fades with time. The suggestion here is that age and wisdom go hand in hand, but also that age causes things to degrade.
The poem explores the contrast of strength versus fragility, such as in stanza two when it is shown through references to religion. The ‘well-used books’, which have had ‘written in the names and histories’ of people may have thin paper, but the knowledge that the pages hold also holds great power. This instils paper with great influence and affection, and this is linked to human skin through the verbs used in stanza three: the pages are ‘smoothed and stroked’ just like human skin would be. This alliteration is repeated in stanza nine of the poem to emphasise the care and respect needed for both tissue paper and human tissue.
This contrast is also shown in stanza four when the poet imagines that ‘buildings were paper’, suggesting that even a structure that is built for strength and durability is ultimately not able to last. This is a metaphor for the human condition and the fact that life too will not last forever. However, this gloomy inference is balanced by the use of the simile ‘might fly our lives like paper kites’, suggesting the fun and freedom that life affords in the time that we have, buffeted by different events and influences, although it is still ultimately anchored to responsibility like the line of a kite.
The poet explores how paper is integral to human life. She references ‘maps’, ‘fine slips from grocery shops’ and architectural drawings to show how human life is mapped out by paper in different forms. Despite its delicateness, paper structures and organises human life. In this way, paper is like the structures built by architects: it is a ‘monolith’ – a pillar that upholds human life.
The poet ends the poem in the ninth and tenth stanzas by linking paper explicitly to life through the phrases ‘living tissue’ and ‘turned into your skin’. These demonstrate again both strength and fragility – that human life is both valuable and significant whilst also being fragile and fleeting.
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