Right, let’s start with an overview of Tissue. It’s a poem with ten stanzas, of which nine are quatrains, with no rhyming or rhythmic pattern. It’s written by Imtiaz Dharker, a poet who was born in Pakistan and who now lives in Scotland. It’s not a poem with a narrative – it doesn’t tell a story – but instead uses images and symbols to create ideas in the reader’s mind.
Therefore, when reading this poem it’s a good idea to let the pictures the poet creates wash over you. You know those magic eye pictures, where you have to stare at the whole thing without focusing in order to see the image? Well, this poem’s sort of the same.
As its title suggests, it’s about tissue – the fine and weightless paper which has many uses. Paper can be used for books, for maps, for receipts and for kites. It can carry information, it can let light shine through it.
And as we read the poem, we come to understand that this is actually a metaphor for humanity, and we realise that there is more than one type of tissue – there’s also human tissue, or flesh. Using this extended metaphor, Dharker explores the transience of human existence.
Published in 2006 as part of a collection called The Terrorist at My Table, the poem reflects Dharker’s interest in human connections and the power and frailty of human nature.
1:16-2:43 – What’s it all about?
Dharker starts by looking at tissue as paper that “lets the light shine through”. This, of course, is what tissue does if you hold it up to the light, but there’s also a metaphor here – light often represents knowledge or realisation. So there’s a connection between tissue and acceptance or understanding.
Light is also, of course, a way of referring to God, which leads us to the next idea Dharker explores, which is that tissue is paper that is so old it has become frail and thin. She uses the image of a copy of the Koran, Islam’s holy book, where a family tree has been recorded. Here, the tissue is used to record connections and family ties. It has been “smoothed” and “stroked” – it’s a manifestation of love.
She then considers what would happen if buildings were paper – they would be more fragile, more transient. The next stanza looks at maps as records of landscapes, and then we move on to “slips from grocery shops” – receipts that record our purchases. The applications of tissue here are all functional – they do things – rather than conceptual.
Then, Dharker describes how an “architect” could “place layer over layer” to build a creation that lets “daylight” through. We’ve been talking about buildings, so the implication is that this is a physical structure.
But in the last stanza she references “living tissue”, and the imagery becomes conceptual again. Perhaps God is the architect she is referring to. She leaves us with the imagery of tissue as living tissue or flesh: something which is simultaneously strong and fragile (because we will all eventually die).
Right, let’s look at the poem a little more analytically.
2:44-4:19 – Dig deep
Tissue has a free rhythm with no rhyme. The frequent enjambment gives it a conversational, musing quality – as if Dharker is working out her thoughts and ideas as she goes along. This free form also mimics the unpredictability and spontaneity of human life – the form of the poem is echoing its meaning.
The poet explores the fragility of tissue – it can follow “the direction of the wind” and “fly our lives like paper kites” (an evocative simile). In stanza four, the internal rhyme between “drift” and “shift” emphasises its fluttering, windblown nature.
In fact, although the poem doesn’t rhyme, it often uses assonance to create internal rhymes and make connections. A frequently used piece of assonance is the ie sound from “light” and “shine”. It weaves through the poem like light itself shining through the lines.
There’s a lovely piece of repetition in the poem which gives us a further clue to Dharker’s meaning. When describing the back of The Koran, she says the pages are “smoothed and stroked and turned transparent with attention”. At the end of the poem, she returns to this image, describing “paper smoothed and stroked and thinned to be transparent”.
But this time she is talking about the human form. This repetition emphasises Dharker’s central idea: just as The Koran shows the work of God, so does human life. And here we come to the final, one-line stanza of the poem: “turned into your skin”.
The single line makes the concept explicit: there’s a link between paper tissue and human tissue. Both skin and paper record our lives, are fragile, and let light shine through them – whether that is real light or the metaphorical light of God.
4:20-5:03 – That’s a wrap
Let’s summarise our findings into five points:
- Tissue is a ten-stanza poem with no set rhyme scheme or rhythm. It has frequent enjambment, giving it an unpredictable quality.
- It’s written by Imtiaz Dharker, a Pakistan-born poet who lives in Scotland.
- Tissue paper is used as an extended metaphor for human life.
- The poem uses lots of imagery to explore the uses of tissue and convey its fragility and its strength.
- Light is an important concept in the poem, and this is reflected in the poet’s language choices and the assonance which weaves through it.