Paterson: a love poem dedicated to solitude

October 17, 2021

The movie Paterson revolves around a poet in love with his work and the world around him

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We fell in love under a moonless sky. The stars were few, but the sky was wide, free, unchained, and I was sitting on a dark green bench with my lap feeling full but not numb. The wind could not touch me nor the biting gaze of the slugs crawling on the ground. It was a cold night made warm by this fateful encounter with an old friend. As winter rears its head again, I come back to my friend, the movie Paterson, which has become a love poem in favour of enduring when one has already gone far beyond the conventional therapy.

I remember watching it first and being struck with unassuming indifference, as all great love stories tend to start. No cupid’s bullet breaking my flesh and transforming my heart. That would have been the easiest thing. A coronary thrombosis was the last thing I needed as I was taking my O Levels in 2016. I wasn’t ready to get my heart broken yet. So I refused to accept it.

But like some scar that grows over an earlier perfection and heals it up, certain events transformed the way I started seeing Paterson. Perhaps it was the false promises made to a person, or my deceptions threatening to push me over the edge. I wrote a love poem to someone without really meaning it. I harboured dreams of being a poet without really doing justice to the idea. I knocked at my own door and wondered when no one would answer it. It is easy to display these big deceptions and festering wounds, of course, but it is harder still to reveal the pimples, those hidden sores that burst like volcanoes from time to time. It was then that I decided, one cold night, to watch Paterson again. It burst like a volcano onto the scene. “This isn’t my real face,” it seemed to be saying, and inviting me into its embrace. “This isn’t my real face,” I seemed to be saying too. I had already travelled the world over in a long-distance engagement, and didn’t feel all that proud of my performance. So watching that film again was an entirely different experience than the first time around. I kneeled over the distances between the scenes; my eyes blurred over at the poetry segues in the bus ride. I travelled with Paterson (the titular character of Paterson) as the little poems by Ron Padgett floated onto the screen. I made a note of the nameless lake in one of the sequences, the untitled creative characters that come and go in Paterson’s routine. I made notes of the stuff people like to endlessly talk about: the appearance of everything in twins in the film. Twin customers at the pool table, the mirror image of Paterson with its namesake, poet Paterson himself, the twinness of Laura and Paterson – two mysterious artists doing their own things differently but together.

I remember watching it first and being struck with unassuming indifference, as all great love stories tend to start. No cupid’s bullet breaking my flesh and transforming my heart. That would have been the easiest thing.

Needless to say, I was absorbed. This was the ancient crater I craved: the comfortable couch of solitude, love and poetry - all in one. My father got sick again around that time. This was mostly my doing. So, naturally, my father had to fall sick – it was the only possible, possibly pathological reaction, to a pathologically searing affliction. I had refused to enter the physician’s profession (I still confuse that with a physicist, sometimes). So here was a movie filled with the bodies of my family, my relationships, all the chaos you could lob at it. And it took it in its stride. A battalion of forces was being decimated at the edge of the screen; life was in turmoil and almost ending as it seemed to the 16-year-old self. But on screen, everything was tranquil.

Off-screen, the picture changed yet again. I moved to Lahore, my family staggered under another attack as I embraced ‘hostel life’ to the max. On those solitary opening nights, I danced around with this movie in the moonlight. Paterson has always seemed to be a story of solitude. It is something that I have always felt the world is hostile to. The discomfort with solitude no one troubles themselves to articulate, is very deep. We try to explain away the silence of stillness with parables, as an example of something or the other, tickling our brown throats with meaning and voices and noises, all to feel less alone. But I had forgotten that I could love myself in my own way. Patesron loves himself through his poetry, through his wife, Laura, and her dog. He did not fall in love with a religious picture of her, nor did he stand under their favorite birch trees. Their relationship and his relationship were fortified by a comfortable solitude, a rosy blanket that covered them both without suffocating them, and there was a river carrying them along. In this river flowed Paterson’s favourite poet William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsburg, weekly nights to the local bar, his vocation of being a poet and a bus driver. His routine hardly differs. There is a discipline in these laws and an unaffected affection in his interactions with fellow travellers, poets, translators, musicians, bartenders, laundrymen and his colleagues. Meanwhile, I had cultivated interactions of my own.

I met a person who taught me about leaves, taught me about narcotic roses and the stars. We were really reconstituting a love poem. I brought along the rambling education I had gathered here and there. But this young scholar found some old scholarship that can’t really be denied; it has to be embraced. I forgot most of what I had once read, and it was frankly, as unimportant as the future of psychoanalysis for me. In my hopped-up fashion, she taught me to love appearances, to see rot as renewal, to see renewal as a necessary condition of living, to step bravely within the neat lines of a love poem. Life was a technicolour postcard again. I revealed to them my love for Paterson (they had paid their dues, and I had too; I thought I had finally become comfortable with my solitude). The appearance seemed to betray my character. I was beyond betrayal. I was unimpeachably honest. We would always be. Paterson transformed: I saw the tender moments between Paterson and Laura; I picked on the plastic reproduction of St Augustine that she had put in his lunchbox; I saw the moment of surrender and compromise. I did not see the heady love of Rooney’s Normal People. Instead, I witnessed a holy matter that went beyond exchanging rings and friendship bracelets before heading to the Prom. I saw that I could finally move out of myself without giving myself up – Paterson had too. He wrote his poetry alone; most of his day was spent by himself with his poetry. His love for his Laura is paralleled only by his love for life and his love for life by his love for poetry. But it’s all a part of him; nothing is reconstituted or privileged beyond himself as a whole. I soon picked up on this thread when I felt like the luckiest man in the world, and I understood it better when they spoke to me one night as if I was the only underprivileged one in the whole universe. I felt deprived: I only had myself, an irritatingly facile subject to live with.

Usually, people indicate that movies are reflective, but this is a diffractory exercise for me. I see how lives can disintegrate and gain and regain. The same way two people can meet and leave no scars makes for a complete disappearance. It is ideal that Paterson ends at nothing. His notebooks chewed up by a hostile dog, a hostile world, and a hostile readership does not disillusion him in the least. He turns over a new page, a new universe. And who are we mere mortals to refuse the universe?

The writer is a student of history and comparative literature at LUMS

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