Only one man – like a city.

In Jim Jarmusch’s new film Paterson, Adam Driver plays a guy called Paterson, who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, where he drives a bus. As is the way of things for most of us, each working day follows the routine of all the ones preceding. But Paterson, an unassuming man with no pretensions, carries a notebook in which, as he goes about his daily business, he writes poems that see the special in the mundane details of the quotidian. Paterson is a man at ease with the world – he takes a quiet pleasure in his work, his city and the people he encounters – and his poems reflect this, transforming commonplace details such as a matchbox into paeans to the rich tapestry of an ordinary life.

Nothing much happens in this film, and this is the point. Jarmusch structures it around a week in Paterson’s life: apart from the weekend, every day follows the same pattern, but one that differs for our protagonist in fascinating details. He wakes automatically at the same time each day, snuggles his girlfriend before rising, picking up a set of neatly pressed and folded clothes from a bedside chair, makes coffee and eats a bowl of cheerios, before picking up his lunchbox and leaving the house.

Paterson: waking
Paterson: waking

Each morning, Paterson walks to the bus depot, past the town’s 19th-century warehouses and factories, absorbing small details and composing a verse in his head as he goes (like my own hometown of Macclesfield, Paterson’s industrial growth was due to silk production, earning it the nickname Silk City). At lunchtime, he takes a break on a park bench overlooking the striking waterfalls that powered the city’s early industry, gets out his notebook and writes some more.

Paterson Adam Driver as the driver
Paterson: Adam Driver as the driver

Come evening, Paterson returns home to his girlfriend (played by the stunningly beautiful Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani), a woman of dreams and projects who spends all day at home painting everything in sight in high contrast black, making cupcakes which she hopes to sell at the local farmers’ market, or learning the guitar with the dream of country-singer stardom.  As sweet and nutty as a Cadbury’s chocolate bar, her character is a puzzling weakness in the film. After dark, Paterson walks their dog, a grumpy English bulldog (an Oscar-worthy performance by Nellie), to a local bar where he leaves the dog grumbling on the pavement. And that’s about it: a life of tranquil contentment, but one which is illuminated by human encounters and conversations between passengers overheard while driving his bus. Paterson lives in the city and the city lives in him.

Paterson: walking the dog
Paterson: walking the dog

As with most of his films, Jarmusch resists Hollywood conventions. There is little drama, and very little happens. A bus breaks down, a jealous lover pulls a stunt in the quiet bar which reveals a hidden side to our bus driver. Paterson keeps his poems to himself, has little desire to see his poetry in print, and does not become famous at the end. Essentially the film is a portrait of a man who is a man at ease with himself and the world. Every morning he has the same conversation with his permanently dissatisfied supervisor, whose life  – in contrast – is a catalogue of woes: a broke down car, a complaining wife, kids who are ill, a strange rash on his back.

But, more than this, Paterson is a film imbued with poetry. In his home, Paterson’s bookshelves are filled with the poets he loves; as he walks the streets of his hometown, he composes the verses which he eventually sets down in his precious notebook. They are inspired by mundane things: William Carlos Williams, who lived and worked near to Paterson (and whose books are among those on our protagonist’s shelves) once said ‘no ideas but in things’, and so a love poem begins as Paterson turns over in his hand a box of Ohio Blue Tip matches, admiring its functional beauty and the design of the company logo. Slowly his thoughts evolve into a minimalist love poem in which matter of fact details of the box and the matches – with their purple heads – eventually explodes into the flame of love.

Paterson’s poems appear bit by bit in script on the screen. Written for the screenplay by Ron Padgett, they succeed in walking a tightrope: though clearly not likely to set the world on fire, they are not awful but contain the germ of something interesting.

In addition to the poetry in his head and on his shelves, Paterson encounters other poets like himself as he walks the streets. When he speaks to a school-girl sitting alone and writing in a notebook he discovers that, like him, she writes poems in this, her secret book. While they wait for her mother to return, she reads a poem from her journal. It’s titled ‘Water Falls’ (she insists on the two words), and describes rain as ‘falling like hair across a young girl’s shoulders’. They discover that, for both them, Emily Dickinson is a favourite poet. One night, passing a launderette he hears a rapper in full flow as waits for his washing, and he stops to listen.

Paterson is a town with a rich history: it’s documented by the bartender in the bus driver’s local bar who has covered the wall behind the bar with press cuttings and photographs that celebrate the great and good who hail from the town or have passed through. Allen Ginsberg name-checked the place in the fourth line of ‘Howl’, William Carlos Williams wrote an epic poem across five volumes about the town, while Rubin ‘Hurricane’, the boxer whose triple murder conviction was later overturned after Bob Dylan had taken up his cause in song, was born here – as was Lou Costello, one half of the comedy duo Abbott and Costello.

In the penultimate scene, after Paterson has suffered a terrible disaster, at his usual lunch spot, he meets another amateur poet – this one all the way from Japan on a pilgrimage to the waterfall that William Carlos Williams used as a leitmotif in his epic poem. Played by Nagase Masatoshi (who played the Carl Perkins fan from Yokohama in Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train), the Japanese poet hands him an empty notebook. With that act of generosity the cycle begins once again.

William Carlos Williams published his epic poem Paterson in five volumes between 1946 and 1958.

That is why I started to write Paterson: a man is indeed a city, and for the poet there are no ideas but in things.

In the introduction to the first volume, Williams explained the aims of his project:

The first idea centring upon the poem, ‘Paterson’, came alive early: to find an image large enough to embody the whole knowable world about me. … I wanted, if I was to write in a larger way than of the birds and flowers, to write about the people close about me: to know in detail, minutely, what I was talking about – to the whites of their eyes, their very smells.

I started to make trips to the area. I walked around the streets; I went on Sundays in summer when the people were using the park, and I listened to their conversation as much as I could. I saw whatever they did, and made it part of the poem.

In the poem’s Preface, Williams writes:

For the beginning is assuredly
the end – since we know nothing, pure
and simple, beyond
our own complexities.

This is the opening of the first section of Book One of Paterson, published in 1946:

Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls
its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He
lies on his right side, head near the thunder
of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep,
his dreams walk about the city where he persists
incognito. Butterflies settle on his stone ear.
Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom
seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his machinations
drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring river
animate a thousand automations. Who because they
neither know their sources nor the sills of their
disappointments walk outside their bodies aimlessly
for the most part,
locked and forgot in their desires-unroused.
—Say it, no ideas but in things—
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident—
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
secret—into the body of the light!
From above, higher than the spires, higher
even than the office towers, from oozy fields
abandoned to gray beds of dead grass,
black sumac, withered weed-stalks,
mud and thickets cluttered with dead leavesthe
river comes pouring in above the city
and crashes from the edge of the gorge
in a recoil of spray and rainbow mists-
(What common language to unravel?
. . .combed into straight lines
from that rafter of a rock’s
A man like a city and a woman like a flower
—who are in love. Two women. Three women.
Innumerable women, each like a flower.
only one man—like a city.

One of Williams’ most celebrated poems is ‘This Is Just To Say’. If you see the film, you will recognise the style:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Read more

One thought on “Paterson: paean to the rich tapestry of an ordinary life

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