Paterson in Paterson
The film follows a week in the life of fictional poet and bus driver Paterson (Adam Driver), as he mooches through Paterson (yes, you read that right), a real-life provincial city in New Jersey. Paterson (the place) is known amongst poetry enthusiasts as the home of American modernist, William Carlos Williams, who is known, in turn, for his epic collage poem Paterson.
In other words, the meta levels in this film are through the roof; labyrinthine connections coil around the single word ‘Paterson’, bleeding from film into reality, and back into film again. Adam Driver is playing a bus driver. Actor William Jackson Harper shows up playing an actor. And whose eyes are we really seeing these routine observations through, Paterson the poet, or Jarmusch the director?
Ohio Blue Tip Matches
Paterson is up now and in the kitchen. Cut to a bowl of cereal on a countertop, Paterson out of shot, only his hands visible. In his right, he holds a spoon, in his left, a tiny box of matches emblazoned with the words ‘Ohio Blue Tip Matches’. Ordinary enough. Only, for Paterson, these matches are more than a household object; they’re the impetus for the ‘Love Poem’ he will write later on his lunch break. “We have plenty of matches in our house. / We keep them on hand, always. / Currently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue / Tip, / though we used to prefer Diamond brand / That was before we discovered Ohio Blue Tip matches.” Traditionally, the love poem has been associated with forms like the Sonnet or the Ode. Conventionally, the love poem is crafted around images grander and more worthy of their subject than a throwaway box of blue-tipped matches. What kind of a love poem is this, Paterson?
The answer: one that belongs in Paterson, NJ, and one that belongs to a lineage of American poetic voices, all of whom take their cue from the city’s most famous resident, William Carlos Williams. His best known poem, ‘This is Just to Say’ (which Paterson reads to his partner Laura, played by Golshifteh Farahani, later in the film), shows us why:
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
This is pure intimacy distilled into poetry. The poem is tiny in every respect: its monosyllabic words, its short lines, its cold plums. This is a note, dashed out on a post-it and tacked to the fridge. Its domestic, its honest, and somehow it epitomises well-worn love. No need for bombast, for trumpets, for decorations, and for sonnets: Williams’s imagistic poem does something else – and so does Jarmusch’s movie.