An award-winning and hard-hitting new voice in contemporary American poetry
The first time I ever came the light was weak and carnivorous.
I covered my eyes and the night cleared its dumb throat.
I heard my mother wringing her hands the next morning.
Of course I put my underwear on backwards, of course the elastic didn't work.
What I wanted most at that moment was a sandwich.
But I just nursed on this leather whip.
I just splattered my sheets with my sadness.
from “Poem of My Humiliations”
“What is life but a cross / over rotten water?” Poet, novelist, and essayist Erika L. Sánchez’s powerful debut poetry collection explores what it means to live on both sides of the borderthe border between countries, languages, despair and possibility, and the living and the dead. Sánchez tells her own story as the daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants and as part of a family steeped in faith, work, grief, and expectations. The poems confront sex, shame, race, and an America roiling with xenophobia, violence, and laws of suspicion and suppression. With candor and urgency, and with the unblinking eyes of a journalist, Sánchez roves from the individual life into the lives of sex workers, narco-traffickers, factory laborers, artists, and lovers. What emerges is a powerful, multifaceted portrait of survival. Lessons on Expulsion is the first book by a vibrant, essential new writer now breaking into the national literary landscape.
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About the Author
Erika L. Sánchez has won a “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize and a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Knopf Books for Young Readers. She lives in Chicago.
Read an Excerpt
Summer boredom flutters its sticky wings. You guzzle cooking wine, gag on the old whiskey you find in the pantry.
On the bus to Granada,
I undress in the musty hostel and suck on sour oranges on the unmade bed.
I hear your lit cigarette all the way from the bathroom.
The night you left was hot,
These moments are burnt milk.
Sometimes when I am alone like this,
And I want to hook my fingers in you:
Highway of Death — the indifference of snakes. Sky is ripe and everywhere the colors are breaking. ¿Quién es el jefe más jefe? In the filmy stillness, Possum-face carries a bucket of heads and spills them like marbles. La yerba, el polvo, las piedras —
The glittering women swing their hips like eternal bells. With pink,
In One Hundred Years of Solitude,
I'm sorry, Amá.
I packed my bags one night and left without a word.
On my way to Tehuantepec,
In my hand I hold a bird of paradise that I bought from a boy at a crossing.
Ama, I think of you as I watch mountains,
Ama, I leave because I feel like an unfinished poem, because I'm always trying to bridge the difference.
Ama, I wanted to tell you about the parade in Oaxaca that saved me.
About how I looked for your God then mine in the desert,
Letter from New York
Every street — fried meat and onion,
In the white cream of my lie,
I swallow warm pennies,
listen to the church bells in the distance —
So much depends upon insertion.
Just look at all this face hunger!
Even my peaches are obscene.
Don't you hear my name dissolve like the body
Siempre salgo con el Jesús en la boca.
Always tearing at the hollyhocks,
always so slick with summer.
Under the corpulent clouds,
I feed the birds of my failures,
My tongue grows plump as a greedy slug.
Again and again,
opens inside me.
Orifice of heaven —
like a soiled miracle,
bright as my own awful pink,
and how like a fever it dazzles.
Santiago Meza Lopez, known as "el Pozolero"
— The New York Times (January 24, 2009)
Even the trees here cringe — a heat sticky like tamarind pulp.
The blindfolded bull is alone again,
walks in dusty circles around the block and tries to lift the cloth by blowing through his nose.
Juárez: behind the Hollywood Club
an elegant skeleton on the back of his silk shirt.
A necklace of dried nipples lies on his chest.
He lowers his head: eyelids tattooed with open eyes.
In the name of the holy ...
The town is named after fleas,
palaces bordered by concrete walls embedded with broken cola bottles.
Next door, Jovita washes shit from the tripe. In the river, she scrubs until it's bright as teeth,
until no excrement remains in the honeycomb pattern.
Jovita's son, the boy nicknamed Mal Hecho —
chasing chickens, huaraches slapping against his cracked feet.
He knocks at every house,
to feed the pigs. When he's finished,
not to touch the broken glass.
spreading their wings and snickers when they squawk ¡cabrón! ¡cabrón!
In a Tijuana club, a young woman straddles a man. He tugs her neon panties,
and she is not shaved but he doesn't care. Black lights flicker, illuminate his teeth,
the acne pits on his cheeks. Everyone moving in slow motion, like an old filmstrip,
like what is happening
couldn't possibly be true. There are mirrors at every angle, everyone multiplied
by 6, 8, 10
impossible to know whose body belongs to whom.
The woman turns around —
Mal Hecho and other boys gather in a burnt-yellow house
at the edge of town where they watch Lucha Libre
on a scrambled screen and cheer as they steady the hanger antenna.
The walls are covered in newspaper —
"El 'Pozolero' pide disculpas."
First, ass in face, then she lowers herself,
wings faded to green on her back. He drags his tongue along his teeth and remembers
how easily a body dissolves in a vat of acid, how first, the flesh breaks away,
The silences are copulating again. Look,
Ripe fruit in my hands at the market. The sharp smell of ginger. I wait six months for him to visit me here, like a body on the verge of fever. My tiny kitchen that week — pots hissing, smoke swirling. The January air slips in from an open window. Broken cinnamon sticks. Frost. After dinner we crush the moist hash, mix it with cheap tobacco, and roll it in rice paper. When we are heavy with lentils and smoke, we braid our bodies together on my twin bed. I dig my face into his beard. The neighbors are yelling in Arabic, and I can't sleep when he is next to me. For breakfast, we eat two slippery eggs and drink coffee with frothy cream. At noon we finally manage to unhook ourselves and leave my apartment. It's Sunday and the streets of Lavapiés are fresh with dog shit, and the bohemians with ragged hair are playing guitar on the corner of Valencia and Miguel Servet. Women wrapped in orange saris are bargaining for vegetables. As we pass the rotisserie chickens in a café window, the three-legged dog follows us, begs us for food. That night on the train to the airport, I watch an ugly baby being breastfed by its gorgeous mother. He nudges me, says to stop staring, stop being rude. I tell him that I'm thinking about his wife, and he asks me if I could stand it and I say yes. At night when he is gone, I massage cocoa butter onto my nipples, rub my shaved legs on clean sheets, hold my fingers in my mouth until I fall asleep. Today I stand in a grocery store digging my nails into a ginger root. Smelling it like a goddamn fool.
Portrait of a Wetback
You cross the viridian scum of river —
wispy-tongued. The sun
whisking your deepest marrow.
A walk to the horizon
Helicopters circle and circle above you like buzzards.
You want to preserve this
in a jar of vinegar: the bright skull
the cloud white as a mistake.
When the guttural
Xolotl, dog-headed man, god of fire,
hole of a wire fence.
Look, the gods wait for you
on their haunches.
The lights flash white
as your brittle gaze
still skins the beauty
from this paradise.
Lessons on Expulsion
I discipline my waist and lean
against the heated coconut.
The day is gray as a face,
clear as the hoofmarks in the carmine.
What is God to me
but an open-mouthed stranger?
I stepped across a viper and still
the forked tongue flickers in my hollow.
You see, my lust
will never know death nor harvest:
elixir of hellebore, colocynth salt, stick,
and mouse shit.
I run in circles and bathe in the hateful river.
This grain, this wild greedy thing
he's left me plumping
so paltry and mulish.
Mercury, mandrake —
I am only a girl
with this brilliant black nest of eagerness.
Over and over, my mother calls to me,
a reckless ribbon in the gloaming.
When the clouds part like stupid lovers,
I close my eyes and press myself against
the eucalyptus tree.
I let the leeches crawl until nightfall.
Hija de la Chingada
The men whistle from their trucks though you're only 13 and your breasts
are still tucked meekly inside you.
Every day after school, the factory men yell
make noises like sucking mangoes.
Technically, you could be a little mother —
But what do you know of sex?
T-shirts and glasses the size of platters.
One evening you come home an hour late
and your mother calls you
hija de la chingada.
Te pregunta ¿en dónde estás abriendo las patas?
What boy have you been fucking?
Your ghost-father sits on the couch cracking peanuts
watching a Mexican gameshow — bugles and maracas,
and big-titted women dancing with a geriatric host.
Finally, when your plump little body wants what it wants,
when you are bent in the arc of desire,
you take a man inside your mouth
in beautiful gulps of summer,
until the shame clicks its way toward you like an ancient insect.
How many times will the rapid pumps leave you heaving
in the bathroom?
When your mother finds a condom in your pocket,
of breaking your teeth.
She tells you this.
Birth control? Aspirina, she says.
Now you say you're a grown woman who can fuck her way across the world,
But when you wrap yourself around your man,
you still ask him to pretend as if you hold a beautiful rapture between your legs.
You still ask him to pretend as if you're human.
Excerpted from "Lessons on Expulsion"
Copyright © 2017 Erika L. Sánchez.
Excerpted by permission of GRAYWOLF PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
La Cueva 7
Letter from New York 10
Las Pulgas 14
The Loop 17
Portrait of a Wetback 19
Lessons on Expulsion 23
Hija de la Chingada 25
On the Eve of the Tepehuán Revolt 28
To You on My Birthday 30
The Poet at Fifteen 40
Kingdom of Debt 45
Love Story 47
A Woman Runs on the First Day of Spring 49
Poem of My Humiliations 62
Donkey Poem 70
Six Months after Contemplating Suicide 72