Paper that lets the light shine through…

Paper Microscopic

Comments on Tissue by Imtiaz Dharker, written for my GCSE English Literature students.

If you’re revising at home, without your anthology, a copy of the poem can be found here:

Sometimes, in moments of quiet, we find ourselves noticing the details in things: the lines on our hands; a frayed hem; the carpentry of an aged table. Perhaps, like me, you allow your mind to reflect on such things and your daydreams become part of your internal philosophy. I’ve aged, but I’m wiser. I need to repair so many things in my life. The workmanship! – I could never create such a thing.

Sometimes, in moments of quiet, we find ourselves in awe of the majesty of the world around us: the horizon; an awe-inspiring building; a sunset; a tree, so old that it’s unquestionably the grandfather of the land. Perhaps, like me, you allow your mind to reflect on such things and your daydreams become part of your internal philosophy. I’m so small in this universe. Everything is insignificant and yet everything matters now more than ever. We’re destroying the planet and yet I have an unwavering belief that Nature will triumph.

Find a piece of paper

Step back from Tissue. Forget about the poem for a while. Instead, think about the qualities of very fine paper. There’s no need for me to guide you through this; you can let your thoughts wander and see what happens. If you’re not coming up with anything then you’re probably still thinking about the poem. Try tearing off a piece of toilet paper and studying it. Let’s move on to paper that holds significance. Take a Bible, Koran, Tanakh, dictionary or even a newspaper – feel the paper between your fingers. Be aware of how your thumb and finger can almost connect, but remain separated by this smooth, dry membrane. Feel this delicate paper, and consider it against the weight of the words it carries.

Now return to the poem.

The Light

Perhaps you’ll have reflected on how light can travel through the delicate paper that you handled. This is a recurring idea in Tissue –

Paper that lets the light
shine through, this
is what could alter things.

The poem opens with a beautiful, positive idea – that as long as we have light, there’s the potential for positive change. We talk about becoming “enlightened” when we come to understand something too; the reference to light is a multi-layered one. We also see this idea in the third stanza:

…turned/transparent with attention

And in the fifth stanza:

The sun shines through

Again we find such ideas in the seventh and eighth stanzas, with the reference to “luminous script” and the idea that an architect could “let daylight break through capitals and monoliths,” before returning to the idea of transparency in the penultimate line of the poem. The poem Tissue leaks light at every opportunity. The repetition of these ideas surely means that the thrust of this poem is hope among an acceptance of our fragile position in this world.

Look for references to light in the other poems – there are plenty there.

Our mortality

I’ve read some ideas on the internet (just on forums) that suggest that the poem is about the significance of human life. My interpretation is slightly different. I think that Tissue is about our insignificance. We’re mortals. We won’t last:

find a way to trace a grand design

living tissue, raise a structure
never meant to last

and even our buildings, that we think are so strong and solid and bold, will eventually crumble. We know that they will eventually fall (clear link to Ozymandias here) and so perhaps they’d make more sense if they were made from paper; their vulnerability would make sense to us:

If buildings were paper, I might
feel their drift, see how easily
they fall away on a sigh

Also, go back to the second and third stanzas:

the back of the Koran, where a hand
has written in the names and histories,
who was born to whom,

the height and weight, who
died where and how, on which sepia date

It’s clear here that even very fine paper documents, such as the Koran in her family, outlast us. We think that we’re significant. Humans have such swollen egos that we struggle to come to terms with our own mortality, and yet when we die, we simply become a name in the back of a book. I’m taking a risk here – but I am posing that “who was born to whom,/the height and weight” is an enjambed line. Of course, we have punctuation here, but the thought is a continuous one. The idea crosses between stanzas, just as the names, records and fine, delicate paper passes between generations. Even the structure of the poem serves as a reminder that we are not here forever.

Map-lines, Identity and Power

We talked in class about maps. In the days of GPS and Google Maps, it’s hard to imagine needing a paper map, but for thousands of years, this was how humans found their way around. Maps, too, are printed on paper that is easily folded; it may not be delicate but it’s certainly lightweight. Once more, Dharker presents us with the contrast between the lightweight image of the paper and the significance of the markings carried by it. Now, consider what the borders on a map mean. Who put them there? The answer, of course, is that humans did so. Nature doesn’t pay attention to political borders. Birds fly between countries and

… The sun shines through
their borderlines

Again, we understand the strength of nature and our own insignificance – the sunlight ignores our man-made borders. Nature triumphs.

A note on context and identity here – Imtiaz Dharker was born in Pakistan but moved to Glasgow when she was less than one year old. Many of her poems are about identity, place and displacement. Consider why she may write about borders created by humans. Think about how moving to a new country may affect one’s identity. You should consider possible messages and themes here; if nature crosses borders without problems, then why do humans build walls and trigger wars over such things?

Let’s look at the sixth stanza:

Fine slips from grocery shops
that say how much was sold
and what was paid by credit card
might fly our lives like paper kites.

As you know, she’s talking about receipts. Again, these are something else in our lives that carry so much weight and yet, physically, feel so insignificant. Such physically insignificant slips have such great control over our lives. There is a simplicity here too; the description of a receipt: “[f]ine slips from grocery shops/that say how much was sold/and what was paid by credit card” is perhaps a way of looking at an everyday part of modern life through a child-like eye. This line could be an echo of her parents’ early experiences of arriving in a country with a new or second language.

And it is in this stanza that we see a clear comment on power:

might fly our lives like paper kites.

If our lives are being flown ‘like paper kites’ then it’s clear that the credit-card companies and the financial and political systems are in control of us. The simile of “paper kites” makes our lives sound flimsy, unstable and – while beautiful – certainly insignificant. This line is another contribution to the overall sense of our insignificance in this world.

The Exam

If Tissue comes up in the exam, then you have a wealth of choice for comparison, although the specifics of the question will dictate where you decide to turn. The messages of Tissue chime well with the Romantic poems, although links to My Last Duchess are a little more tenuous. There is loads to say about nature, power and identity across the others, though. Storm on the Island will yield some decent links with regards to nature. Kamikaze would also work well, especially when it comes to nature and mortality. Checkin’ Out Me History is another wonderful choice for linking to Tissue – if you are given a question on ‘identity’ or similar, then this would be an excellent route to take.

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Image of a micrograph of paper autofluorescing under ultraviolet illumination from Google images, labelled for non-commercial reuse.

Thanks to my friend Adam Boxer for advice on the syntactically appropriate use of Tanakh. I would have clumsily used Talmud or Torah, otherwise.