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Tissue: Power and Conflict Analysis

Imtiaz Dharker is a poet and artist. She was born in Pakistan and grew up in Glasgow. Tissue was published in 2006. The tissue in the poem refers to both paper and human tissue, the latter being cells in our bodies.

Poem summary

The speaker considers the power of words written on paper with the fragility of the paper itself. She mentions the “Koran”, showing how religious beliefs are written on paper. She also talks about how paper is used for records of people’s lives, maps and money receipts.

In contrast to all this power, she says that if buildings were made of paper, we would realise their lack of solidity and permanence. In the last few lines, the narrator considers “living tissue” and how a person’s life – like paper – is temporary. However, the history of humanity is a more lasting concept than paper or an individual person’s life.

The poem’s key message:

Rules, laws, money and religious doctrines are all written on fragile paper and yet control people’s lives. The narrator questions whether we should break free from these restrictions.


  • A semantic field of fragility is used in relation to paper. It is described as “thinned by age”, “fine”, “transparent”, “sepia” (a reddish-brown colour), and likely to “fall away on a sigh”. Dharker emphasises how physically delicate paper is, contrasting this with the importance we give to paper documents.
  • Images of light are used throughout the poem. We are told that “light” can “shine through” paper, and that daylight can “break through capitals and monoliths” (a large stone monument). Dharker is perhaps suggesting that we shine a light on the concepts and objects mentioned in the poem. This way, we could re-examine their importance in our lives.
  • Figurative language is used to show the importance humans give to paper. The poem states that money receipts “might fly our lives like paper kites”. This simile shows humans’ lack of control in that they have to follow the unpredictable course that money and other documents take them.


  • The first seven stanzas focus on the human constructs for which we use paper.
  • The final three stanzas look more at humanity and the lasting impact of a family history.


  • The poem is written in free verse (no regular rhythm or rhyme) and uses enjambment across the lines and stanzas. This gives the sense that the narrator is telling the reader their thoughts in a stream of consciousness.
  • There are ten stanzas in the poem. All have four lines, except the final stanza, which is only one line. This invites us to consider the importance of the words “turned into your skin”. It makes the reader consider their own place in the world and the line of humanity.


State powerDharker looks at the power that is drawn up on maps by states of power. The narrator lists the “borderlines…rivers…roads, railtracks, mountainfolds” that feature on maps, recording which countries own different sections of land. She shows how these ideas are human constructs rather than anything natural. The “sun shines through” the map, showing that we have the power to remove all ideas of borders and land ownership.
The power of natureWhile paper is fragile and restricts people’s freedom, nature is shown to be a more powerful and positive force. Light can “shine through” the paper, and the wind can blow it away. Nature, therefore, is linked with a sense of freedom that contrasts with the control that paper documents can have on people’s lives.
IdentityThe narrator asks the reader to consider “your skin” and how we are all part of a “grand design” of humanity. Dharker could be saying that our family heritage is more important to our identity than the documents on paper that she mentions.

Key quotes to learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“could alter things”The narrator expresses disbelief about the power of paper. Even though it is physically fragile, the words written on paper can control our lives.
“The sun shines through/ their borderlines”Nature here is shown to be a more powerful force than the human construct of borderlines. The fact that it “shines through” presents borders as not being solid or necessary.
“a grand design/ with living tissue”The narrator talks about the “grand design” of humanity as being of greater importance to our identity than anything written on paper.

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