By Daniel Sarché
Every day, we are surrounded by marvels, many of which tend to slip by unnoticed. People are so caught up in the business of life that we often forget to look around.
In Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film “Paterson,” a working man (Adam Driver) soaks up these marvels and captures them in poems that he keeps in a “secret notebook,” as the titular Paterson’s wife (Golshifteh Farahani) dubs it. Though Wikipedia calls it a drama, “Paterson” is a quiet meditation on poetry, exploring it as a deeply tangible, contemplative way of looking at and experiencing life. The poetry of “Paterson” is concrete, pure, and honest, and encourages those watching to look closer at the little charms of the world around them.
Paterson lives day by day in a world of straightforward routine. He wakes up each morning and checks his watch, eats breakfast, ponders the various things in his kitchen (for example, a blue box of matches), and walks the same path every day to and from work. His story is prosaic, but by no means is it bland. There’s a certain magic about, and it suffuses the air.
When we first hear Paterson write in his “secret notebook,” we see that he is receptive to this magic. As he sits in the driver’s seat of the bus he operates, lines scrawl across the screen in a regular, jaunty hand. “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,” Paterson writes. His “Love Poem” sticks to the simple image of a matchbook and flame, a reminder of a simple spark of love.
Paterson lives his life by his schedule. Settling into routine, Paterson can listen to the rhythm of the world around him, whether in conversations about Italian anarchists or in rap lyrics written to the beat of a washing machine. He sees the world through generous, observant eyes that take it all in. For example, all throughout the story Paterson sees twins everywhere, in the most mundane places: at the bar he frequents, on the bus he drives, on his daily walk to work — his girlfriend even has dreams of having twins. The consistency of it echoes the patterned structure of a poem.
Each of these moments of twinning is simple, but in each there is also a quiet beauty.
As the story unfolds, the audience joins Paterson in the task of seeking out this beauty. We are encouraged to see, as Paterson seems to, the charms in brick and mortar, matchbooks, in the hustle and bustle of a daily commute. In doing so, the movie demonstrates that one does not have to be some kind of elevated artist to be a poet. One just has to listen and look.
Paterson may be a poet, but he does not demonstrate much ambition in his verse. He seems truly unperturbed at the loss of his work. While Paterson is attuned to the details of the world, and capable of capturing them in verse, his choice to do so seems less to create something from nothing and more a choice to produce just because he can. When he meets a 10-year-old poet, prior to his notebook’s demise, he tells her that he is a poet as well, though he does not share his work with her. But when he meets a stranger after his notebook’s shredding, he tells the man that he is just a bus driver.
As the stranger notes, however, William Carlos Williams was a doctor, Jean Dubuffet a meteorologist. “A bus driver in Paterson,” the man muses. “This very poetic.”
In just a few words, this stranger captures exactly what the film has been telling us all along — there is poetry in the mundane.
I can’t say entirely why I was so drawn to this film, but this sense of mindful presence is certainly a compelling reason. In the Torah, one phrase pops up frequently that I find equally compelling: “Hineini,” literally, “Behold, here I am.” Its biblical context is one thing, but its personal meaning to me has shaped my life. Each time I re-view “Paterson” it comes to mind again. Here I am. I am present in the world — it does not exist for me, yet here I am anyway. To me, that means a responsibility to take it in, to appreciate and thoughtfully consider what is around us. My challenge to you is to seek out beauty where you least expect it. All it takes is an open eye, an open mind, and the willingness to look and listen.