After an invitation to the last edition of the international poetry festival of Granada, Nicaragua
There are airports where inspectors remain unsatisfied by the premise of poetry. Short of a cartoonish scratch of the scalp, they wonder aloud what is he up to? In the queue at Amsterdam Schiphol, a questioner puts me on pause while the other passengers huddle together on the conveyor belt like salmon jerking happily upstream, gasping for the exit where maybe they’ll be turned into gel capsules of Omega-3.
I have made the cut. The first selector sifts through my suitcase – a light strumming touch of latex fingertips – then, apparently bored, he takes me to a part of the wall where he impressively pulls a folding cubicle out of the wall. Once fully unfolded (its manifestation into space from point-zero seems almost magical) it resembles a small prayer-room. Inside, the request that I “drop trou” as he crouches around my calves, studying the inkblots from broken pens on the whites of my turned out pockets, assisted by his intense curiosity and a small reader-device. While playing with the pockets like catnip he asks how I can afford these trips. Informed by the judicial bent to my TV watching habits, I presume possession of the legal right not to answer such questions – just as he presumes some other kind of possession. Gloved hands flicker through the passport with stamps from Latin American and Arab countries: Cuba, Argentina, Chile, Tunisia – watermarks of thirsty Republics dot the luxurious document. I once had bills of countries in my wallet featuring poets on their otherwise devalued currencies: a frayed 1 peso José Martí, a powder-blue Tunisian 20 dinar note with the face of the guerrilla-poet Abulqassem Él Chebbi. Before I lost it to a Vespa-riding beach thief while swimming in the bay of Carthage, I had planned to make a painting of the port au monnaies, its devalued bills with poet portraits sticking out from it like seaweed, the canvas titled “(Portrait of a) Wallet of Utter Sentimentality”.
“What happened to your passport, my God, it looks like a tractor-wheel ran over it.’’ A friendlier inspector turns over the slated covers, baffled at how the holder would mistreat something so precious. An EU passport, the one most coveted by the world’s inhabitants – they wonder aloud why it still seems so unloved: battered covers, a fading coat of arms. Impatient Customs tell me a second, more careful inspection is required. Now they bring in a more qualified gloved inspector to revise. She rummages efficiently through my lightly packed bags; like a piano or celestina concert, starting soft, then trotting to adagio, the crescendo shaking the luggage more vigorously, playing into a blind fury. Her latex-hands tap, expertly, quick flicky motions in the hope of dislodging one suspicious ion of dope, or a thin hidden powder-pack. The scouring would impress a junkie, such is the eagerness to discover the shit I must be packing. They turn and shake the books, drawings, frayed papers scrawled with poems, decade-old clothes. Mid-inspection, an agent asks me about hobbies.
“I love my hobbies,” I answer with a shrug.
Somehow their sudden displays of mercy or fraternalism seem trained, probably following a formula.
“But what’s your real occupation?” the colleague asks again, in the language of the atheistic North Atlantic.
“I write poems and I make drawings,” I say, refusing to give up my right to not inform them thoroughly.
“How can you afford all this travel doing only that?” quizzes the agent as they look up.
Having watched TV during the years before the global takeover by social media, I know my rights. And in Schiphol, as in Heathrow, one’s rights do indeed matter. It would be melodramatic, opportunist hyperbole to assert the opposite. I would not snarl at the agents of this Kingdom – after all, I’ve lived on their dole gratefully, and with that I sold off not my soul, but at least my right to sneer. Yet I know I must not answer every question.
Once, I had a tall, blonde plainclothes female agent – she wore a Palestinian keffiyeh kerchief, probably trying to pass for one of those archetypal “open minded” Euro-backpackers, freshly returned from Bolivia, a roll of sacred coca leaves hidden away. She took me to a special bulletproof chamber where she announced that her male colleague would frisk my body, according to regulations, while she did my suitcase. I wondered what the thinking behind this code – perhaps the prop keffiyeh offered a clue. Despite rummaging with precision, they could not understand how I came to travel so lightly. All that neglect of Duty-Free shopping arouses suspicion, betraying the absolute determination and focus of a possible FARC terrorist or someone with plenty to hide.
“What do you have in here?”
“Oh, you will be disappointed. More books, more notes.”
Another one flips through the card deck of passport pages with stamps from the Netherlands, Aruba, Panama, Nicaragua, Israel and more, as if playing a zoetrope.
“I got an invitation to a festival of letters, song and dance in Country X,’’ I answer, waving my frayed print-out invitation.
You’d think it would suffice. He can tell I am no rich man’s beloved son, no scion offshoot of a tycoon poppa.
“There’s just no way that this poetry can make you afford all these trips!” He pronounced the “P” and the first syllable in “poetry” like “pooh”, perhaps implying I had stolen it from the first syllable of the more relevant word “poohpooh”.
I’ve made them sulk so much, soon they will need fine drugs, this time for personal usage, and not just to show their superiority.
“As long as nobody informs me of any law obliging me to give personal information, I presume I am in possession of the right to opacity,” I say, squeezing in that reference to the Martinican magister ludi poet Édouard Glissant.
“Your right to what?”
The selectors have let me through. Lucky me! But I have kept them scratching their scalps, and sense they will keep my name and data marked with lemon-ginger highlighter haloes till they figure out where I hid the cocaine.
I must have paid the canoe-riverman Charon’s dented silver coin at double the rate, somewhere along the dark saga-river of sad songs – the roots of which no one wants to investigate further, for now. Why not just cast suspicion on me for the very content of my sorrowful songs? (That would be flattering.) But I know the answer: simply because my songs, unlike Lenny Cohen’s, do not eke out a living.
In the Panama City Airport transfer hall, 4 undercover plainclothesmen halt a bearded stranger in a camel-coloured jacket with light luggage. I unpack my frayed paper invite to the 14th international poetry festival of Granada Nicaragua.
“Es usted poeta señor?” “Are you a poet sir?”
“Eso soy, señores.” “That I am, sirs.”
Promptly satisfied, the policeman hands back the wrinkled invitation. In his officer’s nod, I glimpse a first kinetic instance of a magic substance until then unknown to me: recognition.
It was in the crystal of that minutest interaction that I knew what was to come.
Arturo Desimone (1984) is an Aruban-Argentinean writer and visual artist. Born and raised on the island of Aruba, at 22 he emigrated to the Netherlands. He later relocated to Argentina while working on projects related to his Argentinean family background. Desimone’s articles, poetry and fiction pieces previously appeared in Nueva York Poetry Review, Círculo de Poesía (Spanish), Island (Tasmanian), the Drunken Boat, Anomaly and in the poetry collection Mare Nostrum/Costa Nostra (Hesterglock 2019). He has performed at international poetry festivals in Granada, Nicaragua, Buenos Aires and Havana and has exhibited drawings in galleries in Amsterdam and Ciudad la Plata (Argentina). This essay is an excerpt from work-in-progress “Prelude to Ash-Wednesday”.