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Poetry

Sleepless Homeland

By Carmen Boullosa
Translated from Spanish by Samantha Schnee
Carmen Boullosa's contemporary poem grapples with Mexico's drug wars.
 
Did we lose you in a game of dice?
Did you escape from us in one snort?
In which junkie’s syringe did you become trapped, my Homeland?
           Maybe some Nordic addict’s?
When did they brand you with the mark of the pill that gives short-lived pleasure?
I’m addicted to you, stamped with your indelible mark.
 
 
My Homeland,
once eloquent, now you stutter,
stutter daily,
ever more alive,
voracious, arrogant
like the mouth of an open wound!
 
In the shadows you behave like a trollop,
you sell each part of yourself for the pleasure of others,
wearing dark glasses,
you sing along to the accordion and tamborines,
until you’re hoarse.
In bed you feign pleasure but feel pain.
 
 
(And sometimes you make music without poisoning others with your own flesh.)
(And sometimes, my Homeland, you laugh without making yourself hoarse.)
 
¿Quo vadis?
 
Where did you fall, sleepless homeland,
like the star in the story,
like the drunk woman who crashed into a lamppost?
 
Your flesh is denser,
more austere,
more solid,
more real,
can be compressed into a thimble,
or the embroidery on that blouse.
 
No doubt you exist, no question.
But where are you?
Through the smoke of a war that sullies us all,
              in which no one
              but mercenaries
              participate
—the bullets that fly have no conviction,
they’re on the payroll of the fed, the state, some drug lord . . .
rounds of bullets for hire.
 
You’re slipping away from us, Homeland in flight.
(Your honeyed
breath
of rounds of bullets for hire.)
 
(Your breath of garlic and chocolate and chiles.)
 
(Your pestle-and-mortar breath
of garlic and honey and chiles and pepper and cinnamon.)
(Your breath of sacrificial stone,
of blood,of a heart still beating.)
 
I love her anyway
 
My land, my water, my roots, my tree trunks and flowers,
stony, feminine islet,
mine, mine, as only you can be,
quintessential Mother,
I call to you from another island without stones,
or serpents,
where the eagle and the hedgehog work together,
planning to devour you.
 
. . .
 
(Cactus!
We have made cactus
stew of my Homeland!
A delicious soup of pleasures
for foreigners.
Cactus: ecstasy, meth, and everything else.)

From
Sleepless Homeland (Madrid: Hiperion, 2011). © 2011 by Carmen Boullosa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Samantha Schnee. All rights reserved.
Read About Bios Context Explore Teaching Ideas
 
Did we lose you in a game of dice?
Did you escape from us in one snort?
In which junkie’s syringe did you become trapped, my Homeland?
           Maybe some Nordic addict’s?
When did they brand you with the mark of the pill that gives short-lived pleasure?
I’m addicted to you, stamped with your indelible mark.
 
 
My Homeland,
once eloquent, now you stutter,
stutter daily,
ever more alive,
voracious, arrogant
like the mouth of an open wound!
 
In the shadows you behave like a trollop,
you sell each part of yourself for the pleasure of others,
wearing dark glasses,
you sing along to the accordion and tamborines,
until you’re hoarse.
In bed you feign pleasure but feel pain.
 
 
(And sometimes you make music without poisoning others with your own flesh.)
(And sometimes, my Homeland, you laugh without making yourself hoarse.)
 
¿Quo vadis?
 
Where did you fall, sleepless homeland,
like the star in the story,
like the drunk woman who crashed into a lamppost?
 
Your flesh is denser,
more austere,
more solid,
more real,
can be compressed into a thimble,
or the embroidery on that blouse.
 
No doubt you exist, no question.
But where are you?
Through the smoke of a war that sullies us all,
              in which no one
              but mercenaries
              participate
—the bullets that fly have no conviction,
they’re on the payroll of the fed, the state, some drug lord . . .
rounds of bullets for hire.
 
You’re slipping away from us, Homeland in flight.
(Your honeyed
breath
of rounds of bullets for hire.)
 
(Your breath of garlic and chocolate and chiles.)
 
(Your pestle-and-mortar breath
of garlic and honey and chiles and pepper and cinnamon.)
(Your breath of sacrificial stone,
of blood,of a heart still beating.)
 
I love her anyway
 
My land, my water, my roots, my tree trunks and flowers,
stony, feminine islet,
mine, mine, as only you can be,
quintessential Mother,
I call to you from another island without stones,
or serpents,
where the eagle and the hedgehog work together,
planning to devour you.
 
. . .
 
(Cactus!
We have made cactus
stew of my Homeland!
A delicious soup of pleasures
for foreigners.
Cactus: ecstasy, meth, and everything else.)

From
Sleepless Homeland (Madrid: Hiperion, 2011). © 2011 by Carmen Boullosa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Samantha Schnee. All rights reserved.
Definitions

¿Quo vadis?: “Where are you going?” or, more accurately, “To what purpose are you going?” in classical Latin.

Carmen Boullosa

Portrait of Mexican writer Carmen BoullosaCarmen Boullosa (born in Mexico City in 1954) is one of Mexico’s leading novelists, poets, and playwrights. She has published fifteen novels, the most recent of which are El complot de los románticos, Las paredes hablan, and La virgen y el violin, all with Editorial Siruela in Madrid. Her works in English translation include They´re Cows, We’re PigsLeaving Tabasco; and Cleopatra Dismounts, all published by Grove Press, and Jump of the Manta Ray, with illustrations by Philip Hughes, published by The Old Press. Her novels have also been translated into Italian, Dutch, German, French, Portuguese, Chinese, and Russian.

She received the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize in Mexico, in Germany the Anna Seghers and the Liberaturpreis, and from Spain the Café Gijón Prize. She has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Cullman Center Fellow, and has held the Chair Andrés Bello at NYU and the Alfonso Reyes Chair at La Sorbonne. A Distinguished Lecturer at City College of New York, she is a member of the Sistema Nacional de Creadores, in Mexico. She hosts the CUNY-T.V. show Nueva York, for which she´s been awarded four New York Emmys.

To learn more about Carmen and hear her thoughts on becoming a writer, Mexican culture, and the drug wars, watch the video below:

Samantha Schnee

Samantha Schnee is a founding editor of Words without Borders. She is the former senior editor of Zoetrope: All-Story, a literary journal founded by Francis Ford Coppola that won the 2001 National Magazine Award for fiction. She translates from the Spanish.

Meet Carmen Boullosa

Watch our interview with Carmen Boullosa:

(Watch the video on YouTube.)

Then, read Boullosa’s essay “A Report from Hell,” which delves into the reasons behind Mexico’s drug wars.

Meet Translator Samantha Schnee

Find out what it was like to translate “Sleepless Homeland” in this blog post from Samantha Schnee (who is also the Chair of Words Without Borders’ Board of Directors.)

Journalism on the Drug Wars

First, read Juan Villoro’s essay “Violence and Drug-Trafficking in Mexico,” also on WWB Campus.

Next, get some “Fast Facts” and a timeline of the drug wars from CNN, and then find answers to common questions about the drug wars from the Council on Foreign Relations.

Then, read about a bold announcement from Mexico’s president: Mexico’s President Declares an End to the Drug War, published in Time magazine in 2019. And a more recent article, about the Mexican city where 96% of residents continue to live in fear: “‘We’re Living in Hell’: Inside Mexico’s Most Terrified City,” from the NY Times.

For current events in the drug wars, look through a photo galleryMexico’s Drug Wars, from Time magazine (Warning: includes an image of a murder victim), or browse the subject pages on Reuters and the New York Times online.

Cartels on TV

Watch a trailer for the crime drama Heli, in which a Mexican family gets involved with a drug cartel after a twelve-year-old girl agrees to hide her much older boyfriend’s cocaine. The film was Mexico’s submission to the 2014 Oscars.

(Watch this video on YouTube.)

More from Carmen Boullosa

Watch Carmen Boullosa talk to the philosopher Carlos Pereda about “the train of false desires” and other ideas. (The interview begins 9 minutes in; it’s in Spanish, with English subtitles.)

(Watch the video on YouTube.)

Then, listen to what Carmen Boullosa has to say about the difference between being Mexican living in the United States and being Mexican-American in a conversation about “A Celebration of Mexico” at the Library of Congress. You can also read the transcript.

More "embroidery on that blouse"

Your flesh is denser,

more austere,

more solid,

more real,

can be compressed into a thimble,

or the embroidery on that blouse.

Learn more about the “embroidery on that blouse” in the NPR story A Modern Twist on Mexican Fashion Hits the Runway.” You can find other work from Carmen Boullosa on Words Without Borders and Amazon.

Children and Young Adults in Today's Mexico

Look through the pictures in “Through Children’s Eyes,” a BBC Mundo series that shared children’s art depicting the drug wars.

Then, read about young adults targeted by the drug wars in Francisco Goldman’s unit introduction and the A.P. article “Thousands Protest Brutal Killings of 3 Mexican Film Students.” Organizers of the April 26, 2018 march said: “Our dreams and our voices will not be dissolved in acid.”

Finally, read Mexico 20, a 2015 anthology of work from young Mexican writers. Find the book from Pushkin Press.

Race in the Drug Wars

Read the Room for Debate discussion about what can be done to restore justice and security in Mexico.

Then, read this New York Times op-ed about the disproportionate effect of violent drug raids on Black and Indigenous people in Latin America.

Watch former President Bill Clinton speak about about the role of the US in the Mexican drug wars. He tells Mexican students and business leaders, “I wish you had no narco-trafficking, but it’s really not your fault.”

Then, read an article about the speech.

Artists Respond to the Drug Wars

Look through the slide show “A Vale of Terror, Transcended: Artists Explore Immigration, Border Issues and the Drug War.”

A work by David Freeman incorporating embellished found objects — a skull encrusted with faux gems, a suitcase sprayed in gold paint, a suicide jacket — evoking drug wealth, violent deaths and the transport of people, drugs and weapons. By Ben Sklar for The New York Times.

Then, look through the gallery “Documenting Murder in Mexico” from Mother Jones magazine. (Includes graphic images.)

Immigration from Mexico

Find out how much it costs to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, and hear answers to other questions, on NPR’s The Call-In, which answers questions about crossing the border. (You can also read the transcript.)

“People who are are against immigration generate a sense of crisis…They create a sense that ‘This is a huge problem; we need a wall.’” Read more about immigration myths and facts in the New York Times.

Boy holds a sign: “Peace for immigrants.” Minneapolis, Minnesota, April 26, 2010. By Fibonacci Blue.
Growing Up Amid Violence

For a child’s perspective of a different armed conflict, take a look at “A Subjective History of Lebanon,” a graphic memoir about growing up in the middle of a civil war.

Feeling Lost in Literature*

Read another piece of literature about being lost, Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?,” which is available in full text on Oates’ official website.

*For Teaching Idea 1

A Poem "Inspired" by Songs*

Carmen Boullosa has said that she listened to narco-corridos (ballads about Mexico’s drug culture) as she wrote this poem, even though she “hates” them. In an essay published on this site, journalist Fabrizio Madrid describes the ways in which the songs seek to justify the life choices of drug cartel members:

Through their verses the motive [for crime] becomes clear: I was very poor and now I have everything and endless amounts of it and, even if they kill me, it was worth living by illegal means. . . They use the discourse of the prevailing power: the free market and the legitimacy of making money.

You can listen to a song below.

Mis Tres Animales (My Three Animals) by Los Tucanes De Tijuana.

The lyrics (also from The Mystery of the Parakeet, the Rooster, and the Nanny Goat) are:

This is nothing new, gentlemen,

And nor is it going to end;

This is a lifelong business,

The Mafia of global origin.

Then, read the rest of Madrid’s essay, which also discusses film, code language, and the possessions seized from drug dealers:  The Mystery of the Parakeet, the Rooster, and the Nanny Goat.

*For Teaching Idea 2

To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English Spanish
 
Did we lose you in a game of dice?
Did you escape from us in one snort?
In which junkie’s syringe did you become trapped, my Homeland?
           Maybe some Nordic addict’s?
When did they brand you with the mark of the pill that gives short-lived pleasure?
I’m addicted to you, stamped with your indelible mark.
 
 
My Homeland,
once eloquent, now you stutter,
stutter daily,
ever more alive,
voracious, arrogant
like the mouth of an open wound!
 
In the shadows you behave like a trollop,
you sell each part of yourself for the pleasure of others,
wearing dark glasses,
you sing along to the accordion and tamborines,
until you’re hoarse.
In bed you feign pleasure but feel pain.
 
 
(And sometimes you make music without poisoning others with your own flesh.)
(And sometimes, my Homeland, you laugh without making yourself hoarse.)
 
¿Quo vadis?
 
Where did you fall, sleepless homeland,
like the star in the story,
like the drunk woman who crashed into a lamppost?
 
Your flesh is denser,
more austere,
more solid,
more real,
can be compressed into a thimble,
or the embroidery on that blouse.
 
No doubt you exist, no question.
But where are you?
Through the smoke of a war that sullies us all,
              in which no one
              but mercenaries
              participate
—the bullets that fly have no conviction,
they’re on the payroll of the fed, the state, some drug lord . . .
rounds of bullets for hire.
 
You’re slipping away from us, Homeland in flight.
(Your honeyed
breath
of rounds of bullets for hire.)
 
(Your breath of garlic and chocolate and chiles.)
 
(Your pestle-and-mortar breath
of garlic and honey and chiles and pepper and cinnamon.)
(Your breath of sacrificial stone,
of blood,of a heart still beating.)
 
I love her anyway
 
My land, my water, my roots, my tree trunks and flowers,
stony, feminine islet,
mine, mine, as only you can be,
quintessential Mother,
I call to you from another island without stones,
or serpents,
where the eagle and the hedgehog work together,
planning to devour you.
 
. . .
 
(Cactus!
We have made cactus
stew of my Homeland!
A delicious soup of pleasures
for foreigners.
Cactus: ecstasy, meth, and everything else.)

From
Sleepless Homeland (Madrid: Hiperion, 2011). © 2011 by Carmen Boullosa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Samantha Schnee. All rights reserved.

La patria insomne

¿Te perdemos en un juego de dados?
¿En una esnifada te nos escapas?
¿En qué jeringa de que yonki te has quedado atrapada, Patria mía?,

¿tal vez atada a un adicto nórdico?
¿Cuándo te pusieron encima el sello de la píldora que da un placer efímero? De ti yo soy adicta, sin tus suertes.

¡Patria mía,
algún día diamantina, tartamudeas! ¡Tartamuda cada día,
más viva a la manera de la llaga, altiva y voraz!

En tus rincones te comportas como una suripanta, vendes cada porción de ti para el gusto de otros, usas lentes oscuros,
cantas con acordeón y tambores,

te desgañitas,
en tu lecho finges placer y sientes dolor.

(Y a veces tus cuerdas suenan sin estar envenenando a costa propia). (Y a veces, Patria mía, te ríes sin desgañites.)

¿Quo vadis?

¿Dónde caíste, Patria insomne,
como el astro del cuento,
como la ebria que se estrella contra un poste de luz?

Tu masa más densa, más austera,
más sólida,
más real,

puede comprimirse y caber en un dedal,

o en el bordado de aquella blusa.

De que estés, no hay duda.
¿Pero a dónde vas?
Entre lo humos de una guerra entre todos,

en la que nadie sino mercenarios participa

-las balas que vuelan no tienen convicciones,
son de paga federal, estatal, o de este capo o el otro etcétera… Ráfagas a sueldo-,
te nos escapas, Patria en fuga.

(Tu aliento
de miel
de ráfagas a sueldo.)

(Tu aliento de ajo y chocolate y chiles diversos.)

(Tu aliento a piedra de moler,
molcajete y ajo y miel y chiles y pimienta y canela.

(Tu aliento a piedra del sacrificio, a sangre,
al corazón que aún palpita.)

La quiero igual

Tierra mía, agua mía, raíz mía, arboladura y flor, islote pedregoso en femenino,
mía, mía, como sólo tú puedes serlo,
Madre mayor,

a ti te llamo desde otra isla sin piedras,
ni serpientes,
donde el águila y el erizo andan en lo mismo, piensan cómo devorarte.

̈ ̈

(¡Nopalitos!
¡Sopa de nopalitos
hemos guisado con mi Patria!
Deliciosa sopa de placeres
para los extranjeros.
Nopalitos: éxtasis, alfametilfentanilo, y demás.) !


From
Sleepless Homeland (Madrid: Hiperion, 2011). © 2011 by Carmen Boullosa. By arrangement with the author.

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