Tissue – Imthiaz Dharker

Tissue: Imthiaz Dharker

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

the kind you find in well-used books,
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,
pages smoothed and stroked and turned
transparent with attention.

If buildings were paper, I might
feel their drift, see how easily
they fall away on a sigh, a shift
in the direction of the wind.

Maps too. The sun shines through
their borderlines, the marks
that rivers make, roads,
railtracks, mountainfolds,

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.

An architect could use all this,
place layer over layer, luminous
script over numbers over line,
and never wish to build again with brick

or block, but 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,
of paper smoothed and stroked
and thinned to be transparent,

turned into your skin.


If ever there was a poem that used metaphor a lot it would be this one. It takes the idea of paper, something that on its own, is breakable, squashable, foldable and pliable enough to be damaged, broken, torn, or burnt to a cinder and it shows us just how strong paper can be in our lives; how much of a place it has in our lives each day.

Consider for a moment how many times you have touched something made of paper today. I wonder how many times it will be, from toilet paper, to newspaper, to cleaning tissue, to hand tissue to blow the nose, to magazine, photograph, or just a good old fashioned book. Paper has a major part in our lives and we seldom acknowledge that fact, which is what this poet is trying to do here in these verses of poetry.


She begins with the idea of thinness, of how paper can let the light in and how it can “shine through” the leaves of a book or a magazine. Open the page of a book and hold it against the light and you will see. But she thinks that paper can alter things too. Is she right? Can this paper “thinned by age and touching” shed so much light on the world or even a life? She seems to think it can because this is the kind of paper that “you find in well-used books,” where there has been plenty of notation and thumbing. When I think to one of my books that I own, the back few empty pages have so much notation inside in pen from when I had to sit an open book examination and was allowed to add any notes I wanted. They could not be full sentences, but you can imagine what it looks like. It is a church service book just like the “Koran” that is mentioned in this poem, “where a hand has written in the names and histories” of the family who owned such a special book. The family Koran is just as valuable as the family Bible is to Christian families. Some of them have lists in about who was born and when, of “who was born to whom,” as well as their “height and weight” and then, “who died where and how, on which sepia and faded date in time within that faded family.”

This is all something about how paper plays a part in all our lives. We all have these books, or photo albums, where paper is used. I am currently working on a family album of myself and my wife. As we get older, we begin to think of what we leave behind us, so we are making this for our children to add to in our later, more infirm years. Each page will have a single photo in of the both of us, beginning with the earliest, the baby one in my case and the early school one in my wife’s. Then, we shall see our life pan out as we turn each paper page, as we look at those “pages smoothed and stroked and turned, transparent with attention” at the touch of our hands. This is the power of paper that she is writing about here.

Dharker seems to write in terms of pictorial imagery, where she sees paper as being as powerful as the buildings around us. When you think about it, we write on paper our plans. If we are building a house, we write and submit plans, usually on paper, even today. Technical drawing creations of differing views of the proposed house have to then be submitted to the local planning department for the idea to be given the all-clear. When that happens, more paper finds its way to us and we then begin building. Paper. It is everywhere and it dictates what we do each day. “If buildings were paper,” says this poet, we “might feel their drift, see how easily they fall away on a sigh, a shift in the direction of the wind.” The imagery there of a tall building swaying in the wind is an interesting one because it depicts things like skyscrapers and makes those images enter into the mind. It makes me think of a friend’s flat he lived in years ago, which was one of those fourteen story ones; massive, tall, and that thing swayed like mad when there was a large enough wind and you lived on Floor 13.


There are so many times we can use paper. One of them is when we use a map. I am an old fogey. I admit it. I do not like SATNAVs and haven’t done ever since one of them took me to a destination and then said, “now go straight on and you will reach your destination.” If I had done what it said, I would have driven over a 140 foot ridge, to my immediate death. Maps too, are important to us all and I prefer the paper ones. A few weeks ago, I landed into the UK off a ferry from the Isle of Man, in Heysham. I knew I wanted the M6 north and went for it but ended up lost, heading south. My phone had died on the way over and I needed a map, pronto! I stopped, bought an A-Z, found out where I was and then planned my long route home. This is the brilliance of things made by paper. They last through all sorts of adversity. The sun shines through the paper, through “their borderlines, the marks that rivers make, roads, rail tracks” and they leave us with a sense of ease because we are so used to them. All this from a part of a tree.


Then the poet makes us think of another image; the receipt we get from the shop when we buy something, but the problem is today that we use a form of payment called “Contactless” and we get asked if we want the receipt or not. I always ask for the receipt, mainly because I trust no one with my money but me, but once again, the power of paper in our daily lives, from “fine slips from grocery shops that say how much was sold,” to examples of paper that tells us “what was paid by credit card” in the last month are being written about here. If we were naughty and overspent, then we pull back and be more careful the next month. This is the power of the paper in our lives.


Finally, the poet uses images of “paper kites” which can be flown in the wind or how an “architect could use all this” for his or her benefit, of how such a person can use layers of paper to change the world around us. Just imagine, she is saying, if we stopped building with bricks and used paper instead. If we did, then we could “place layer over layer, luminous script over numbers over line and never wish to build again with brick or block.” Would the buildings be as strong if we used paper? The answer to that is quite possibly yes, because it works on the age old principle that is used with string and cord. One thread on its own is weak. Weave three together and then try to break it and see how strong it can be. Likewise, with paper, its strength and power is there for all to see because it is a “living tissue” that can “raise a structure never meant to last.” In its transparency, in its weakness, on its own, it is nothing, but blend it into card and it becomes thicker, harder, tougher and more durable and then, that paper can become more like the skin we have on our bodies; more able to be strengthened by the advancing years of age and strength. Paper then, in this instance, can be seen as a metaphor for something as supple and thin as our skin, yet such things have layers upon layers of epidermis. It is not just one layer and then sinew and bone. The strength of the skin is the same as the strength of paper; thin enough to be “transparent,” but strong enough to withstand all sorts of forces that are set against it.

The last thing to consider is why she would even write about paper in the first place. I have never asked her, but sometimes, writers think to themselves Now, what shall I write about today? Then they stare at the paper in front of them and if the mind goes blank, all they see for an age is a blank piece of paper. I can just imagine Dharker doing this and then seeing past the blankness of the page and into the more metaphorical, to the fact that paper serves so many purposes in our daily living. Then she begins to write some ideas and some verse down. It may well be that there is another more valid reason. I do not know. I do not search other websites, [usually] for when I write these analysis pieces. I just write what I think based on what I see on the page in front of me, itself made of just the thing the poet is writing about; paper.



War Photographer – Carol Ann Duffy

War Photographer – Carol Ann Duffy

In his dark room he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.

He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands, which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.

Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.

A hundred agonies in black and white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.
From the aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns his living and they do not care.


I love the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy, from Salome to Miss Havisham, she is always there with a point to make and a certain style in which to do it. This poem is no different either.

It we adopt a title theory attitude to it, then we see the title and we expect it to be about a man or woman who has seen war torn situations and has come home and is getting to grips with life back in civilian homecomings. Or we expect it to be set in a war torn situation, mentioning bombings and the likes, the brutality of what they are photographing. If you watch Full Metal Jacket, although for the younger audience that might be a bad idea just yet, then you will get the idea.


But then we get to the poem and we see the setting and the brutality all rolled into one short and quite poetic style. Following a rhyme scheme of abb abb and a certain flourish of the pen, what Duffy writes about is a man who has returned home from a war torn place and is finally in his dark room. That dark room in line one is symbolic, in a way, of safety. It is the only place he feels real safety because of his job. It is the only place on the planet where he feels totally in control with the elements and liquids needed to create the quality photographs he does.

The poem shows us that the man is in his dark room, alone. It is a solitary lifestyle, the life of the old fashioned film developer. It is different now because we use digital cameras which can upload onto the internet straight away, but back then, in the glorious days of the 35mm film that you had to be extra careful with, you had to be in the darkness with “spools of suffering” in his case, spread out before him. Each photograph that such a man or woman takes is likely to be one that shows the horrors of warfare. It is certainly a job I would not want and I am a keen photographer myself and a former soldier.

The fact that there are “ordered rows” shows us that here is a man who is meticulous in what he is doing. Red light softly glows around him and the image of the priest in church is not lost on this reader, because in church, at times, we use lights to signify certain things. It helps to create a mood of sombre reflection to use tea time candles, for example. In this case, the red symbolizes blood that has been shed as he has captured the image for posterity. He is in a way, performing his macabre mass over his bench where all these liquids are laid out in trays ready for use.


The use of the city names of “Belfast. Beirut” and “Phnom Penh” are all meant to reflect something of the horror of modern guerrilla warfare. For those not in the know, Belfast refers to the ‘Troubles’ that were had there between Catholic and protestant at the time in Northern Ireland when the British Army tried to maintain peace, only for terrorist bombings to take place in Belfast and elsewhere on a regular basis. The use of Beirut as a reference shows us an image from a time in the Middle East when the troubles they had were based, for a time, in that city, where Arab fought Jew and Muslim fought Jew and Christian together. The atrocities carried out were regularly photographed by war correspondents.

The title itself, of this poem, speaks for itself. This is a man who “has a job to do.” That much is simple for us all to see and what we see as he does it, using his “slop in trays” is a man who is focusing on what is before him, rather like he would when taking the photograph in the first place. After all, when we frame a photograph with our camera, what do we do? We lift the camera or the phone to our eye height, make sure everything we want is centred and in view in the frame and then we press the shutter to get the best picture. We make sure all is not blurred and we make sure that the final product will be a memory for us to remember. This is what I did recently when I went to the Isle of Man for the TT bike racing. I have lots of memories now, to keep looking at, but this man’s memories are ones that are far more violent and malevolent than mine.

He, like me, is “home again” in “rural England” where the only pain is the “ordinary pain” that we face from day to day, but he has to live with that which he has seen through his camera lens. That cannot be easy, when you think about it. The places he goes to when he is home do not “explode beneath [his] feet” or cause him the kind of “nightmare heat” that he is now used to. This reaction in him is what we call today, PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and requires intensive therapy to help you get over the grief or horror you have witnessed.

Let me give you an example from real life!


Imagine coming home from a war zone like Iraq. Imagine it being near to November 5th. Then imagine sitting in your Mum and Dad’s house, aged 23 and an almighty great firework goes off with a terrific bang outside. What would you do? One of my ex students hit the floor when this happened, put his hands over the back of his neck and shouted, “take cover” as if he was calling to his comrades. His reaction was instinctive. Now, in the poem, we see the photographer doing the same thing as something begins to happen and “a stranger’s features faintly start to twist before his eyes,” as if he is seeing some “half formed ghost.” This is a vision of horror akin to that of the men in the poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen and shows the nastiness of warfare in all its grievous evil. Not one of us would survive the hell that such an image would bring. We would all be affected in one way or another.

Then the memories kick in and he begins to hear “the cries
of this man’s wife,” as she sees the horror of the moment and how she seeks “approval without words,” in silent movements of the arms to do something for her dying family member who is at her feet, blood stained in the dirt of the day in a “foreign dust.” This image is one that is full of colour; the red of the blood, the brown of the dirt, the colour of death; black. And then there is white, the colour of peace, but this image is flipped and subverted by the writer as she makes her war photographer [and us] see “a hundred agonies in black and white” all hanging there in photographic form. Life and death in monochrome. That is what he has captured.

There is one more thing that the photographer and the editor has to do, if they are not one and the same person and that is to choose “five or six for Sunday’s newspaper supplement.” Just how do you look at photographs such as this and then choose one for use in a magazine? I suppose in time, the editor and the photographer would become immune to the horrors. The more of these they see, the more blase they would become about them. The more they see them, the more they would think to use the next ones which are worse than those that have gone before them. In this way, when we see them in our magazines, our “eyeballs prick with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.”

We tend to view photographs such as these nowadays as just another thing to view in the harshness of life, but what Duffy is doing here is writing a poem that shares the idea that when these people go to these places and take these photos, there is an element of danger, in taking them, as well as in seeing them, in producing them for public consumption. The man “earns his living” and the “they” who “do not care” is us, the consumer who voraciously seeks after one image or another in the desire to read about the next fight that has taken place. In this way, the writer is making a social comment about our need to rubber neck when there is something horrible to see, using the image of war and a photographer to bring the idea home to us all.


When we see the photographer, we are meant to see ourselves. When we see the images of war, we are meant to see our need for titillation. When we see the horror, we are meant to see our need to see even more. This is what we are like as human beings! That is the power of this poem, for she allows us to see into the soul of our conscious thinking about how we treat others across the world.