"There's no escaping from this room," Cattafi intones, leading me to ask: this room? What room? Recently, literature Professor Sarah Osment went to Paris and tweeted about a performance of Mozart at Sainte-Chapelle. Sainte-Chapelle, a former teacher of mine remarked, is an exercise in how much stained glass you can pour into a room. You're bathed in rainbows, surrounded by some of the finest sounds humanity offers. I don't think Cattafi means a room like Sainte-Chapelle when he declares the impossibility of escape. Osment's musings reminded me of my visit, 27 years ago, when I heard Vivaldi's Four Seasons there. I still can't get the Largo from "Winter" out of my head. Some rooms are transcendent.
No Escape Bartolo Cattafi (tr. Geoffrey Brock) There's no escaping from this room from all that doesn't happen here.
Of course, there are plenty of rooms I've wanted to escape. I detest most of the classrooms I was taught in. Bad lighting, cheap furniture, and bare walls proudly ignore the lives shaped in those rooms. I stand in such rooms as a teacher and feel a peculiar anxiety. I was a student who barely spoke in my college classes and I can see my nervousness in those blank walls. The pressure to do more is particularly intense when you are given no sense of what is possible, just emptiness.
"There's no escaping from this room / from all that doesn't happen here." "[A]ll that doesn't happen" is what I can't shake. It's a combination of imagination, anxiety, and boredom. I think back to classrooms where I didn't know what to do. I think about rooms far more vicious, where terror feeds from a desire to be done with the terrible. Cattafi's lines bring us to moments where our imaginations work too well. Even boredom produces lots of thoughts. None of those thoughts, though, yield words we want. Maybe we can find words--maybe we can become creative--but "all that doesn't happen here" suggests a sort of paralysis we are familiar with.
I don't think Cattafi's poem takes aim at our usual talk of "writer's block." I believe it aims at the traumatic spaces we construct for ourselves. Those spaces can paralyze our speech, but it is possible to babble within them, or even build in some strange way. The crux of the matter is the lack of escape. These lines do address another common notion, that we have to go through pain to make art. This isn't an idea I'm entirely comfortable stating. I've known a few who said this while not caring a whit about the harm they caused. I hold Cattafi's poem elaborates on this sentiment in the following manner: OK, you need pain to make art. The imagination will be excited but the cost is being bound to it alone, to "all that doesn't happen." There is life beyond this room. To escape, all you have to do is consider what does happen. Life and art, amazingly enough, are distinct.