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,
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.