In the last post I was looking at the form and structure of Tissue by Imtiaz Dharker. This popular anthology poet has been on every inception of the poetry anthology at least since I can remember, but she continues to both delight and baffle, so I thought I’d try to write something to settle the nerves of this year’s GCSE students who have asked for some support on this poem.
As I said, there is a crescendo towards the end of the poem, a sense that the poet is building up to something, and we finish with that final statement that reveals the poet’s illusion: the paper is a metaphor for humanity.
Today, I’m going to take a line-by-line approach, looking at the key ideas in the poem, and how they’re explored through the language. You can find Dharker talking about her poem here, and reading it.
She starts straight away with the word ‘Paper’, and the idea of how fragile it is: ‘Paper that lets the light/shine through’. We’ve already thought about how she uses the enjambment there to leave the word ‘light’ dangling at the end of the line, drawing our attention to it. Light is something positive, something that gives hope. Couple that with all the conditionals, and I see a poem that is very much about hope for humanity – and what we must do to save ourselves from the current conflict. This line reminds me of hoary old songster Leonard Cohen, the master of gloom, in his song, Anthem and his line that “there is a crack in everything.;. it’s how the light gets in” – which is a nice way of saying that it is our flaws and imperfections, the broken bits of us that allow the good to seep in somehow. In fact, if you’re feeling adventurous, there is a lot to be added to your understanding of Tissue by considering the great Mr Cohen’s song. It talks about hope too, in a cynical world.
The first quality of paper, then, that she finds interesting, is that it lets the light shine though. Light is such a powerful and well-used metaphor for all that’s good that I shouldn’t have to explain it to anyone. We’re surrounded by that metaphor.
In the second line, we also have a dangling word that is separated from the rest of its line with the enjambed line ‘this/is what could alter things.’ I wrote a little about the word ‘this’ in the previous post, but it’s interesting. We call it a deictic word, a pointing word. It’s a pronoun that refers back to something before. But what is ‘this’? Does she mean it’s the paper that can change things, or letting the light shine through that could alter things? Or a combination of both – paper that lets light shine through?
At the same as being quite a hopeful image, I think there is also a dark side to this image. Paper and skin and light makes me think of another, darker image. Anyone familiar with Lady Lazarus by poet Sylvia Plath (and it’s one of the most well-known post-war poems, so most poets would be) will be aware of a line in that poem, ‘My skin/ Bright as a Nazi lampshade’. This line is a reference to the ugly tale that certain Nazis in charge of concentration camps in World War Two made lampshades out of human skin. Whether it is true or whether it is propaganda, we are reminded in this image of not only the good things that humanity is capable of – our light and goodness – but also the darkness and the evil. What should be an image of beauty, like paper lampshades and light, is a thing that reminds us of the cruelty and depravity of humanity. I don’t think you can read a poem that compares paper to skin and to humanity without thinking of Lady Lazarus and these darker images.
That cruel image alters things too: it is the horrors of what happened in the concentration camps and extermination camps that is largely what has changed warfare around the world and should change how we see others. There are lots and lots of lessons to be learnt from the atrocities of the Second World War, and if that is one of the things that Dharker’s ‘paper’ image is referring to, then she is right indeed. It could alter things.
Still, I like to think of the hopefulness of the light and paper image, not its ugliness. She talks about how she found a connection with her father – and her past – on the paper she found.
Whether she means the way paper lets good shine through, whether she means it as a reminder of of mankind’s atrocities or whether she simply means it as the literal piece of paper she found in the back of a book, where she found a connection to her father.
The final line of the first stanza is also interesting as she describes this paper in a second way: ‘paper thinned by age or touching’ – this is paper that has a value, that has been kept or treasured, paper that is significant.
Now you are undoubtedly not as old as me, and you probably don’t have the stuff I’ve collected over the years, but there is a lot of stuff I can’t throw away. First off, I need to confess that I am an English teacher. That’s not confession material, I know. But English teachers often have a weird thing about books. Like books are our religion. Books are our safety blankets. So we have weird attachments to books that you probably don’t get unless you are a budding English teacher. So I can’t throw out my 40-year-old copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Stories that I got as a Christmas present from my Great Gran when I was a nipper. But I also can’t throw away books that were given to me as presents that people have written in – especially if those people are dead. That means I’m clinging on desperately to my illustrated Children’s Bible that I got from my grandparents in 1977, even though I’m not a child, I’m not religious and I have about 200 other Bibles, which makes me sound like a religious nut, but I can’t throw Bibles away, even if I’m not particularly religious and even though I don’t believe it’s the actual, literal Word Of God on paper. Neither can I throw away the Good News New Testament that I got from our vicar as a present (!) for going to Sunday School in 1981 (which was my parents’ great idea for free babysitting so they could have a Sunday morning without children and listen to The Carpenters or some such). I make no great claims to being religious, but if some day I am found dead and the police come round to my house, they’re going to think I’m a bit of a religious freak since I won’t be able to explain (and I can’t explain now, even being alive and all that) why precisely I have twenty copies of the New Testament and why I’ve got the world’s biggest collection of books signed by vicars.
Anyway, in this age of Kindles and e-books, of disposing of things, this age that lacks sentimentality, I thought it necessary to explain a bit how books, how paper and stuff can hold value for us old people with our whimsy and nostalgia.
In fact, even though I’ve moved house several times, gone through several purges of ‘stuff’ in the name of minimalism and had to squash a whole house-worth of things into a transit van to move abroad, there are some ‘paper’ objects that are still with me – things that are probably incomprehensible in this digital age.
Here, if you didn’t believe me, is my 1981 Good News New Testament (and this is the first time since 1981 that it has probably been opened)
And here is my Children’s Illustrated Bible (not Illustrated Children’s Bible, which sounds like a Jacqueline Wilson tale)
And here are letters I wrote in 1989 in GCSE History (NB: A Cautionary Tale… I got a C in GCSE History – and no doubt my poor performance was related to spending my time passing notes to my friend Pam about boys we liked)
So why do I keep this stuff apart from a weird sentimentality about religious things and holding on to the past?
Because they’re pieces of me. They are pieces of my life. They age, as I do. They get damaged, as I have. But they are the things that make me who I am. They are the reminders that those who have gone once lived. My friend Pam died of cancer in 2017, and although we hadn’t spoken for years, those letters are not just a reminder of one of my most rich friendships, they are physical and real evidence of that friendship. I can’t quantify that friendship. I can’t put it in a bottle and keep it on a shelf. But I can, when I open those letters, remember it and relive it a little. They are literally the only things left of it. They are the physical relics of a life. They are the archaeological artefacts of my past.
Some of those pieces become the artefacts of other people’s past too. I have slide films and photographs, school reports and letters from my other dead relatives. I’ve got my Great Grandpa’s St John’s Ambulance medals, and my Great Great Grandma’s teaching certificate. These artefacts – and stories about them – keep them alive. When I die, those stories may die too, but as long as someone keeps that box of relics from our family’s past, it’s as if those people are still alive.
I know that’s a hard and weird concept to get your head around when you are 16. I mean why not burn the whole stinking lot of it?
I think a lot has to do with our own mortality and how we are but tiny flashes of existence in an enormous chasm of time. Keeping hold of things makes them significant somehow.
It also, like Imtiaz Dharker, allows us to hold on to relationships that are gone. And when people have died, holding on to them is the one thing that becomes the most important of all. Coming back to the ‘lone and level sands stretch far away’ of Ozymandias, we’re a long time dead, and even if you are the ruler of the biggest empire that ever was, even if you were the ‘King of Kings’, give it some time and your life is going to be nothing more than a puzzle to future curious minds, should they trip over some remnant of your life.
Ironic how paper, something so fragile and so easily destroyed, can be as good as stone at preserving the past.
Anyway, a circuitous waffle about the marvels of paper. Like the sculptor in Ozymandias, we may not know the author, the creator of these artefacts as time passes, but what they capture may help us understand ourselves and the world around us. As Dharker says, ‘a hand’, not knowing whose hand was responsible for recording all the details of lives before ours, so we lose connection with the people who create records of the past. But the fact that there are records leaves us something. Whether it’s a painting of someone’s wife, whether it’s a photograph of lives destroyed during war, whether it’s half a statue in a desert, these artefacts aren’t just curiosities about “the way we used to live”, but they are things that hold a mirror up to us in the here and now. We can use them to learn from the past. We can use them to see how times don’t change – how dictators will rise and fall – how people will suffer at the hands of cruel tyrants – how husbands will be jealous of wives – how atrocities are committed across the globe – and if we’re wise, we can learn from these things that don’t change, but could – if only we were to learn from the past!
Unlike, however, those Bibles that may pass down through the generations recording marriages, births, christenings, confirmations and deaths on the pages themselves, the Koran is different – not to be defaced. This might be why she says these details are written on slips of tissue paper that are perhaps tucked inside. It reminds me too of books I’ve read where I’ve marked the pages with receipts or tickets of the places I’ve been when I read them. I don’t just open a book when I get them out again, I recall all the details about where I was when I read it.
Paper, too, turns sepia with age – it yellows. It does this, as it turns out, even if you don’t look in the book all the time (hence the yellowing of my Good News Bible) and the sepia of the third stanza, like other references to age and use, reminds us that paper ages as we do.
As we move into the fourth stanza, we have the rhyme on ‘drift’ and ‘shift’, where the sounds of those words amplify the meaning, the movement of things, how things are not fixed or secure.
And that, I think, is the central message of Tissue. We might understand how fleeting life is, how brief it is, how easily wiped out, ‘how easily they fall away on a sigh’. And if we understood that life is fragile, we can also understand that, despite that fragility, humanity is still strong. Like paper, it endures. We might stop trying to build permanent things, raising ‘a structure never meant to last’ and start focusing on what is important in life – all those names and details recorded in the backs of books, all the relationships we had with people of whom little physical is now left. If we accept how fragile life is, we might start doing things that are much more meaningful, might fly our lives like ‘paper kites’ and ‘never wish to build again with brick’.
When it comes to it, then, I think the poem explores the pointlessness of building empires – not unlike Ozymandias in fact, and instead of being pessimistic about how ‘nothing beyond remains’ is left of huge empires, we should, instead, embrace what we have when we have it. We too should treasure the lives around us, focusing them until they ‘transparent with attention’, like we pour so much care and love and attention into them that they are worn thin with use. I’m reminded of the line in War Photographer where Duffy says ‘All flesh is grass’ where we are supposed to remember how fleeting and meaningless life is – how our stone empires, the ‘capitals and monoliths’ are pointless, and what really counts are the ‘grand design[s] with living tissue’. We may have made our preparations with our stone houses and our nailed-down rooftops like ‘Storm On The Island’ but the lives inside are fleeting and transient. You can batten down the hatches as much as you like, prepare yourself to ride the storm, but ultimately, you’d be better to remember that we’re paper, not stone, carried slowly on the air currents, like ‘paper kites’, ‘drifting’ and ‘shifting’ like paper ‘in the direction of the wind’.
Instead then of realising that everything will be destroyed by time eventually, we should embrace that. All of those conditionals, the ‘could’ and the ‘might’ reveal a poem of possibility.
We should realise too that something fragile, like paper, has the potential to change things. History – the names, details and inscriptions from the past – has the possibility to change things in the future. We can use it to create, to be an ‘architect’ of things for the future.
Paper has the potential to reconnect you with yourself. Fragile as it is, it connects you with a past that you can never get back again. I will never live a life again where so much lay before me and everything was an exploration. That’s why I keep those letters. I will never again have a friendship that was as silly and free and careless as I did back then. My Nana will never again write an inscription in a book and all I physically have to remember how much I was loved and cared for as a child are those inscriptions in books.
Like Ozymandias and Storm on the Island, I think the poem works as a metaphor about the battle between humanity and time, but instead of reminding us that we are a long time dead and that time will get the better of us eventually, even if we are the ‘king of kings’, we’d be better to ride out the drifting direction of the winds of time as ‘paper kites’ and celebrate ‘the grand design/of living tissue’. She finishes with three imperatives:
Let the daylight break/
Through capitals and monoliths,
Through the shapes that pride can make,
Find a way to trace a grand design
with living tissue, raise a structure
never meant to last
Those three imperatives also build to a conclusion. It’s her advice for life. Let the goodness in. Create something wonderful with people and relationships. Build something that you realise will fade to nothing. The poem, then, serves as instructions for life and guidance about how to resolve the age-old conflict within us related to our own struggles to create a meaningful legacy in life and leave something behind of us when we die. You don’t have to hunker down in a bunker like Heaney to ride out the storm, or build stone monoliths proclaiming how blinking MARV you are… build your legacy in relationships and create something meaningful with the lives around you.
There is so much more to say about this poem – which is why I think it’s such a rich and complex beast. I haven’t even touched on the maps and the paper kites, the irony of how buildings can be destroyed as easily as if they were paper, the importance of the grocery slips, the significance of credit cards… but then you’re gearing yourself up for a brief comparison in 45 short minutes in an exam, and I’ve already said more than you could possibly hope to deal with in that. If I have to focus on anything, go with the light images, the light shining through, the daylight… go with the ‘our lives like paper kites’ to explore the fragility of human lives, go with the imperatives that end the poem and lead up to the Big Reveal of the central metaphor.
And teachers, if you want to really get into it, you may want to look at Denise Levertov’s What Were They Like? about how cultures can be forgotten in the blink of an eye. It’s not in the current AQA anthology, but it sits nicely with this one in order to make it clear how so much history of a culture can be so easily destroyed.