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Commentary: In 'Paterson,' a snippet of the poet's life

Thomas Devaney is a poet whose books include Runaway Goat Cart and The Picture That Remains; he is a Pew Fellow in the Arts and teaches at Haverford College

Thomas Devaney

is a poet whose books include Runaway Goat Cart and The Picture That Remains; he is a Pew Fellow in the Arts and teaches at Haverford College

There is nothing glowing about the movie Paterson, or its main character, also called Paterson, or the North Jersey city of the same name, which is also the title of a long poem by William Carlos Williams.

The movie's pared-down premise sounds all but implausible: A bus driver makes his daily route through the streets of his city, taking note of the random stuff of everyday life to write poems. The main character, Paterson (Adam Driver), and his sweetheart, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), share a modest but full life together.

The pace of the movie draws attention to and allows you to join many moments of fleeting workaday magic. Jim Jarmusch's poet character isn't an anguished or misunderstood genius writer, but a guy from the neighborhood who drives a bus and keeps a small notebook.

What is there actually to see out the window of a lumbering New Jersey Transit bus in Paterson, a city that at many intersections resembles Philadelphia?

We know we are looking at the world through the poet's lens, and so as the camera lingers and frames the world, we look at the world a little more carefully. Jarmusch reminds us that there is always something worth looking at: the signage and the multiple reflections (chrome and glass) and the way old brick walls look so good in good light, the sunlight on faces of people who are waiting for a bus, or nothing at all.

One morning that could be almost any morning, eating his bowl of cereal, Paterson notices a box of matches. In his poem Paterson, Williams writes, "Say it, no ideas but in things," so here is a matchstick from a matchbox. Between that moment and Paterson's life, where something starts to open. The scene is not overdone, but we witness a turn if not a spark. Paterson writes a few lines in his notebook - it's almost nothing - and a poem begins to take shape:

We have plenty of matches in our house.

We keep them on hand always.

Currently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue tip . . .

The simple beauty of the movie is voiced in poems the protagonist is writing: in the voice of the words on the page, but also in the soft glow of Driver's voice-overs that we hear as Paterson writes them word by single word.

The actual poem is by the poet Ron Padgett, whom Jarmusch asked to write for the movie. Seven Padgett poems are featured: four he wrote imagining the life of the protagonist, and three poems he selected from his earlier books.

The Ohio Blue Tip poem above is called "Love Poem" (from Triangles in the Afternoon, 1979) and it continues:

They are excellently packaged, sturdy

little boxes with dark and light blue and white labels

with words lettered in the shape of a megaphone,

as if to say even louder to the world,

"Here is the most beautiful match in the world,

its one-and-a-half-inch soft pine stem capped

by a grainy dark purple head, so sober and furious

and stubbornly ready to burst into flame,

lighting, perhaps, the cigarette of the woman you love,

for the first time, and it was never really the same

after that. All this will we give you."

That is what you gave me, I

become the cigarette and you the match, or I

the match and you the cigarette, blazing

with kisses that smoulder toward heaven.

The low-key beauty and textures of real life in the poem reinforce the movie's central tone.

One morning, half asleep, Laura shares a dream with Paterson about twins. They recur. The rhymes and rhythms of the world: like twins, the pleasure of seeing twins pass by (double take).

It would be wrong to say that this is "a love movie," but in many subtle ways it is a series of love letters framed by the days of one workweek. Another poem starts to take shape:

When I wake up earlier than you and you

are turned to face me, face

on the pillow and hair spread around,

I take a chance and stare at you,

amazed in love and afraid

that you might open your eyes and have

the daylights scared out of you.

But maybe with the daylights gone

you'd see how much my chest and head

implode for you, their voices trapped

inside you like unborn children fearing

they will never see the light of day.

The opening in the wall now dimly glows

its rainy blue and gray. I tie my shoes

and go downstairs to put the coffee on.

The poem is Padgett's "Glow" (from You Never Know, 2001), and as it turns out, that is exactly what it is: a glow. The understated utterances of Driver's reading of the poem reveal how many one-syllable words there are in it: wake, up, face, me, take, a, chance, wall, go, will. Those one-syllable words help us catch the lift and music of the two- and three-syllable words, such as, earlier, pillow, afraid, amazed, and downstairs.

Laura has a knack for designs that are playful and striking; she decorates every surface in the house. She says, "I have a strong visual style." And she sure does. Her character rounds out the movie's warming glow.

They have a modest life, and one with visible limitations, but what of it? What is poetry, anyway? How is it done? Theirs is a life lit by their own inner lights: the imaginative qualities they see in their living room, the pleasures of simple weeknight supper (and it's not about the food), walking their dog in the neighborhood, or half-awake in bed telling of a dream from the night before.