Imtiaz Dharker

Tissue by Imtiaz Dharker

The poem Tissue’ by Imtiaz Dharker reveals the power of a paper, and how one can use it for many different things. It is about the fragility and power of humanity, which is used as an extended metaphor throughout the poem. The speaker, in the poem, is the first and second person narrator who uses tissue paper as an extended metaphor for life. She considers how a paper can ‘alter things’ and refers to the soft thin paper of religion, particularly the Qur’an. There are also real-life references to other lasting uses we have for paper in our lives, for example; maps, receipts, and architect drawings.

Each of these items is connected to important aspects of life: journeys, money, and home. These examples demonstrate how important but also how fragile paper is. In the final stages of the poems, the poet links the idea of a building being made from paper to human skin, using the words ‘living tissue’ and then ‘your skin.’ This is quite a complex idea, and the meaning is open to interpretation. She may be suggesting that the significance of human life will outlast the records we make of it on paper or in a building. There is also a sense of the fragility of human life, and the fact that not everything can last.

Tissue by Imtiaz Dharker



The poem, Tissue’, which can be read in full here, is primarily structured in unrhymed, irregular quatrains. This type of form is generally used to represent the irregularity of life and flimsy nature of the tissue paper the poem talks about. There are ten stanzas in the poem. The first nine stanzas are each four lines long. The final stanza, however, is one line in length, drawing our attention to it. Separating out his line emphasizes the connection between paper and skin, depicting the significance of human life. Since the poem is written in free verse, it lacks regular rhyme and its rhyme is unsteady as if to represent the fluttering of tissue paper. The poem has the use of enjambment, running meaning between lines across stanza breaks. This contributes to the flowing delicate nature – both of paper and of the human lives the poet compares the tissue to.


Analysis of Tissue

Stanza One

Paper that lets the light
shine through, this
is what could alter things.
Paper thinned by age or touching,

What would you do if you are sitting alone in your room with no entertainment facilities around you? Obviously, you would pick up a paper; write down something, such as a message for your friends, some or other type of drawing, or sketching any figure that comes to your mind. Besides, you could also write a poem, or give a new shape to the paper into any inanimate thing that you can play with, and entertain you. So, there are many important and useful usages of a paper, but unfortunately, we take it for granted, throw it into the dustbin without knowing about the significance it has played in our life. Though all that I have written about may not be relevant to the poem, it does reveal the various uses of a paper. Similarly, the speaker, in this poem, makes use of tissue paper as an extended metaphor and compares it to our life. She says the light that shines through the paper is actually the representation of a god. It is a symbol of truth, and when used in religious texts, it represents god. The thin paper represents old age; as we grow in our age, our skin also becomes thinner, and when this starts happening things around us also begin to alter. This is because we are gaining wisdom, and getting wiser.


Stanza Two

the kind you find in well-used books,
who was born to whom,

The poet further says that the paper may grow older, but it does not lose its importance. No matter what religious books you follow or worship, you cannot imagine without papers. You can find this paper in almost all well-used books, it is everywhere, be it ‘the back of the Qur’an, or any other religious books. A paper is a history in itself. It has the names of all those heroes who glorified our history. It even tells you who born when, who died where, and who died how. It has the date and time of all of us. In this stanza, the poem has used the paper as an extended metaphor, such as “used books” – which represents human life, and says that the human/skin has been used and touched by others much like the Koran. Besides, it tells how the paper has a record of famous people and religious books. The phrase ‘well-used is to describe the books and so the tissue is just one-way Dharker makes the tissue seem positive; ‘well-used items are usually good as otherwise, they wouldn’t be worthy of any use. ‘Grand; is used to describing the design made with tissue also, and this has another, positive effect.


Stanza Three

the height and weight, who
transparent with attention.

In the third stanza, the speaker tells that a paper is useful to keep a record of all those who were born and died. It records who died when and how, thus a paper is useful to document. “Pages smoothed and stroked and turned transparent with attention,’ is an extended metaphor that the poet again uses here. By this, she means that a paper is like a human skin that is ‘smoothed and stroked’ by the touch of another. By “turned transparent with attention”, the speaker brings into light the fragility of human life and tells us how people can change. The meaning of ‘sepia date’ relates to the date, which gives the reference of one’s birth and death certificate.


Stanzas Four and Five

If buildings were paper, I might
feel their drift, see how easily


that rivers make, roads,
railtracks, mountainfolds,

In the fourth and fifth stanza of the poem, the speaker becomes a little speculative and imagines what if the buildings were made of paper. Here she compares the paper to human skin, employing the words like ‘living tissue’ and then ‘your skin.’ Through this stanza, the poet may also mean that if they (people) were made of paper, they were easily drifted by the wind; how just a move would lead to their destruction by just a little blow of wind. They were destroyed and collapse on the ground. So, emotion and weather both affect them. She then goes to another idea of a paper. She talks about the maps and says the sun shines through their borderlines, the marks that rivers make, roads, railtracks, mountainfolds. She in fact shows the relationship between maps and the world. Maps are also delicate, conditional, and may be moved by wars if not by emotions. This is really a very strange image the poet uses to describe a paper. “The marks that rivers make, roads, railtracks, mountainfolds” may also refer to human skin – blemishes, veins marks all attained during life. ‘Maps’ are often made of paper. This may also refer to geographical borders being restrictive/not free. The ‘sun’/ nature’s power breaks through man’s divisions. in words, like revers make, roads, railtracks, alliteration of ‘r’ sound gives momentum/ rhythm to the poem. The use of the word ‘mountain-folds’ may also be a metaphor for veins/wrinkles/marks on skin obtained all through life.


Stanza Six

Fine slips from grocery shops
might fly our lives like paper kites.

In this stanza, the poet talks about the practical uses of a paper when she says fine slips (receipts) or ‘credit card (s), she may mean that details provided by them can explain a lot about human lives. They disclose what and how much was sold, and what was paid for the purchases. This familiar image could suggest something larger about socioeconomics. This may also suggest that our lives are controlled by money. Kites are often fragile and difficult to control. This may also signify that our society is also preoccupied with material goods. And ‘paper kites’ represent freedom. This image looks like something innocent and child-like. In this stanza, the idea of wind carrying paper becomes the image of freedom within the poem.


Stanzas Seven, Eight and Nine

An architect could use all this,
place layer over layer, luminous
of paper smoothed and stroked
and thinned to be transparent,

Through this section of the poem, the speaker says if an architect makes builds his buildings with tissue paper, she will be able to bring light even through the buildings and will not again think of making the buildings with breaks. She can make a grand design with this living tissue and will come up with a structure that will not last for long. Here the speaker moves from talking about an inanimate paper to ‘living tissue’. She says that life is much more intricate than any building, but also temporary’ yet family history is lasting. “Never meant to last” seems ominous. An architect is one who is qualified to design buildings while luminous means radiating/reflecting light. This use of alliteration/repetition reinforces the build-up of layers. ‘Script over numbers over line parallels between architect/poet’s craft. The meaning of monoliths is large stone statue/column.

The speaker says that human life is both a wonderful construction and fleeting. The ‘grand design’ may signify the way life is built, each being ‘grand’ and unique in its own  way, yet ‘never meant to last.’ Besides, the poet also suggests the religious idea that man is made in the image of God. The ‘grand design’ refers to the perfect image of God that is traced with ‘living tissue’ in the form of humankind.

turned into your skin

Though this is the last verse of the poem, it is very meaningful and holds the utmost importance in the poem. This is one line in length and draws our attention to it. Distinguishing out this line lays emphasis on the connection between paper and skin, depicting the significance of human life.  The direct pronoun “your” talks to the readers. As we value human life and compare its vulnerability to paper similar to the extended metaphor all through the poem.

This poem concentrates on the different things in life that keep us bridled or in control and represents that our lives are mapped out by the paper. Examine the different themes, for example; nature, religion, wealth, pride, life and freedom. Some of the poem’s images are ambiguous, and they raise many questions, such as; is it about spiritual fulfillment? Does the persona desire a world without many constraints? Is it ultimately about life being fragile/transient (temporary)?


Critical Analysis

The poem, Tissue’, by Imtiaz Dharker, not only describes the power of a paper, and its various usages, but it also talks about the fragility and power of humanity. The poet also states how a paper can ‘alter things’ and relates its soft skin to the religious aspect, with the reference of the Qur’an. Apart from a tissue’s religious, personal, and humane references, the poet also relates it to its other long-lasting usages, such as maps, receipts, and architect drawings. In all, the poem suggests how fragile and important a paper is, but unfortunately, we take it for granted and throw it into the dustbin after its use by just considering it a piece of paper. The context of the poem is interesting, Dharker is of Pakistani origin which may factor in why religion features in this poem. Being an ethnic minority growing up in Scotland would no doubt inform a poem such as this.

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Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
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