On John Prine, Ferrante’s Feminisms, and Paterson


The Review’s Review

Historical diorama of Paterson, New Jersey, in the Paterson Museum, licensed under CC0 1.0.

Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson is set in Paterson, New Jersey, the city that is also the focal point for William Carlos Williams’s modernist epic Paterson, a telescoping study of the individual, place, and the American public. Paterson is home to—and the name of—Jarmusch’s hero, a bus driver and a very private poet, played brilliantly by Adam Driver. He lives with his ditzy but extremely loving wife, Laura, who is obsessed with black-and-white patterns and becoming both a country-and-western singer and Paterson’s “queen of cupcakes.” Like much of William Carlos Williams’s poetry, the film is a celebration of ordinary life. Every day in Paterson’s life is the same. He wakes at the same time each morning, kisses his wife, eats a bowl of Cheerios, goes to work, listens to his colleague moaning about his life, sits in the same picturesque place to have lunch and write his poems, comes home to have supper with his wife, goes to the bar. And he’s not interested in being published. His pleasure is in the writing, and in seeing poetry in the everyday. As Carlos Williams writes: “no ideas but in things— / nothing but the blank faces of the houses / and cylindrical trees …”

One of my favorite scenes in the film is Paterson’s encounter with a little girl who is writing a poem while waiting outside the bus station for her mother and sister. When she reads him some of her work, his response is respectful, tender, and genuine. The whole film is suffused with this gentle respect. The only fly in the ointment is Marvin, Laura’s bulldog, who hates Paterson (perhaps because Paterson leaves him outside the bar when they go on their evening walks?). After Marvin wreaks revenge on his poems, a bereft Paterson visits his usual writing spot. There he meets a Japanese poet and fellow Williams fan, who makes him a gift of a new notebook. “Sometimes empty page presents most possibilities,” he says, before leaving with an enigmatic “Aha.” And Paterson begins to write again. In the midst of the ongoing evils of our time, it is a balm to be immersed in the entirely unsaccharine Paterson. It is a privilege to appreciate how sweet it can be when everything—the good and the ordinary—stays the same.

—Margaret Jull Costa, cotranslator of “Three Sonnets” by Álvaro de Campos

Close readers of Elena Ferrante may already know that her books draw strongly on seventies Italian feminist theory, as formulated by groups such as the Milan Women’s Bookshop Collective: in the third Neapolitan novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the narrator, Lenù, even gives a long, impassioned summary of Carla Lonzi’s essay “Let’s Spit on Hegel. But the second lecture in Ferrante’s new In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing, translated by Ann Goldstein, describes in detail the influence of the Bookshop Collective’s theories on female friendship (elucidated in their book Sexual Difference: A Theory of Social-Symbolic Practice) on her fiction. In fact, all of the lectures in In the Margins—originally commissioned by the University of Bologna and delivered publicly in 2021 by an actress and a Dante scholar, in an effort to preserve Ferrante’s anonymity—provide new insight into the novelist’s engagement with writers like Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Ingeborg Bachmann, María Guerra, and Emily Dickinson. It’s a fascinating peek into Ferrante’s process, one that opens up intellectual rabbit holes and as many new questions as it answers.

Rhian Sasseen, engagement editor

The songwriter John Prine died of COVID-19 in April 2020, at the age of seventy-three. He had contracted the virus while touring for The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album of new music since 2005, and one of his best. Prine’s deceptively simple melodies and lyrics were a conduit for a sort of plainspoken mysticism, and I’d long been in the habit of seeing him perform once or twice a year. I still miss him. 

His death urged fans to reappraise an album released that same March by another great songwriter, the visionary soul artist Swamp Dogg. Swamp Dogg—born Jerry Williams Jr., in 1942—had invited Prine to sing on two of the album’s tracks. They would be Prine’s final studio recordings.

The two singers had been friendly since at least 1972, when Williams had a minor hit with his arresting version of Prine’s “Sam Stone.” Williams’s aesthetic leans more experimental than Prine’s: in his heyday, he sang tender postapocalyptic sci-fi ballads on records with titles like Gag a Maggot. Still, the affinity between Williams and Prine is audible in their duets, recorded when both men were in their seventies, and when neither knew what the next year would bring. 

Please Let Me Go Round Again” is a classic, comically depressive Swamp Dogg character study: “Oh life, can’t you afford me another chance? / If you let me go ’round again / I’ll build a better mousetrap from a far more better plan.” Williams and Prine are charming, trading lines. It’s a lovely tune. At the end, over a vamp, the two begin to pal around. They start in character:

Williams: I’m scared to bet on myself.
Prine: I’ll bet on you.
Williams: Well, I’ll bet on you. But I done screwed up so much.
Prine: Well, maybe we’ll get a two-for-one. Maybe they’ll give us both another chance.
Williams: At half price.
Prine: We can get a two-headed sweater.
Williams: Yeah! Right!

The exchange doesn’t sound scripted. The laughter and warmth are real. It was “whatever older people call having a ball,” Williams would later say of the sessions. As the exchange continues, the two drop out of character, speaking sweetly to one another, as if forgetting the microphones. “Hey, man—I want to thank you for that ‘Sam Stone,’ man,” says Williams. Prine replies, “You bet. You got it around to a lot of people, Swamp.” It’s beautiful. Something between them there on record has the power to make the listener feel cared for. Then it’s over. “We were planning on going to his house in Ireland,” Williams said of Prine, in an interview that followed Prine’s death, “and we were going to stay there about a week or so and just write some new shit, you know? His intertwined with mine, you know, the ideas. And it was going to be good, man.” 

—Zach Williams, author of “Trial Run