Lessons on Expulsion

Lessons on Expulsion

by Erika L. Sánchez


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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 border—the 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.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Kathleen Rooney

The second-person form can be both an invitation and an accusation—a simultaneous opportunity to adopt someone else's perspective and reckon with why, perhaps, you hadn't considered that perspective before. Some of the most powerful poems in Sánchez's lush and formidable debut use this tactic to draw readers close to difficult subjects…Elsewhere, Sánchez's wrenching explorations of guilt and shame, grief and misogyny portray with vivid rawness the experiences of others: narcotraffickers, factory laborers and sex workers.

Publishers Weekly

In her hallucinatory debut collection, Sánchez negotiates an imaginative space between oral history and journalistic reportage, overloading the senses as she produces “a body on the verge of fever.” Sex workers, farmers, hormonal adolescents, and churchgoers populate these formally varied lyrics delivered with a whiff of magical realism. Sánchez is as capable of intriguingly surrealist gestures (“the day goes on picking/ the meat from its teeth”) as of photographic depictions. Her narrative voice is perhaps most seductive when most ruthlessly sensory, describing an estranged lover’s angst triggered by the odor of raw ginger, or evoking New York City streets with “the rich smell/ of baked garbage and coconut curry.” Sánchez’s protagonists defy expected cultural roles, braving the disapproval of patriarchs and of “ashen saints with their eyes/ rolled back in blessedness,/ whites the color of old wedding/ dresses.” Ambient unease and confessional impulsivity culminate in the lush shock of “Six Months after Contemplating Suicide,” in which the speaker reckons with wanting “the end// with a serpentine/ greed” and celebrates the hard-won capacity for survival. Throughout, a sense of menace pervades all the joyfully vivid detail, suggesting that only language itself provides a “brief happiness as fierce as the wet muscles of a horse.” Agent: Michelle Brower, Zachary Shuster Harmsworth. (July)

From the Publisher

Lush and formidable.”The New York Times Book Review

“[A] fierce, assertive debut.”The Washington Post

"In lusty verse that startles and caresses, the author—whose parents traveled from Mexico to raise her in Illinois—vivifies the complexities of the immigrant experience.”O, the Oprah Magazine

“Skillful and striking. One of my new favorite poetry collections, Lessons on Expulsion is a beautiful debut work of history, womanhood and love.”Ms. Magazine

Lessons on Expulsion combines stories of immigration with those of sexual empowerment against a backdrop of surrealist and folkloric dreamscapes. . . . Dynamic poems.”St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Every line is astonishment. Each poem, a climactic moment. . . . She makes emotional connections magnetizing the body to words that reverb with sensuality. Every line can be seen, tasted, heard. . . . From the dark, this diamond is Sánchez’s debut book.”Washington Independent Review of Books

“This is a collection that outlasts its final page, that feeds us endless questions to ponder, that makes us want more.”The Millions

Lessons on Expulsion does brilliant work blending one sensory experience with another . . . such that the eye and ear never feel far apart. . . . In this intensely visceral debut, Sánchez paints a compelling picture of the human experience, at once cruel and full of tenderness.”Guernica

“An impressive array of tautly constructed poems.”Vol. 1 Brooklyn

“Sensuality, self-doubt, poverty, joy and despair—the poems of Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion frankly and memorably touch them all.”Shelf Awareness, starred review

“With lushness of phrase and dynamic displays of body and joy and despair and hurt, Sánchez’s debut collection strikes like human thunder, the air burnt in the reader’s lungs.”Frontier Poetry

“Sánchez’s poems are spells that hide their intentions until their work is done, leaving the reader transformed.”San Diego City Beat

Lessons on Expulsion was written from the gut, from the horrors and ecstasies of the female body, this remarkable collection pulses with raw experience.”Fork and Page

“Vibrant and superbly written. . . . [Lessons on Expulsion] offers an exploration of what it is to live, love, and suffer on this Earth. . . . Not to be missed.”Library Journal, starred review

“Sánchez negotiates an imaginative space between oral history and journalistic reportage. . . . Sánchez is as capable of intriguingly surrealist gestures . . . as of photographic depictions. . . . Throughout, a sense of menace pervades all the joyfully vivid detail.”Publishers Weekly

“[A] compelling debut. . . . Sánchez minces no words in challenging accepted notions of femininity, race, religion, and sexuality.”Booklist

"A rare one with phosphorescent night-powers & deep-fire mind tools, Erika L. Sánchez—here's her ground-crackling first poetry volume. A prize-eater."—Juan Felipe Herrera, US Poet Laureate

"Lessons on Expulsion marks the arrival of a vital new voice in American poetry. With penetrating intelligence and lyrical precision, Erika L. Sánchez makes visible the violence striking down Mexican women living on the border and interrogates the historical and the familial origins of misogyny. Her deft braiding of the beautiful and the grotesque infuses her language with a shimmering rawness and a startling immediacy. Her gaze is unflinching and feminist; it marvels and questions and testifies. Lessons on Expulsion is an uncompromising and singular debut."—Eduardo C. Corral

"Erika L. Sánchez writes with persistent care. . . . Reading Sánchez's poems is like watching the world from a train, the exquisite rhythmic blend of the known and the unknown. The world remains always more than we can understand, yet suddenly, thanks to her great poetry, we are pierced by what we know."—Eileen Myles

Library Journal

★ 04/15/2017
In this debut collection, Sánchez (winner of the Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Contest and a fellowship from the Poetry Foundation) describes what it's like to be a child of immigrants, and, too often, a woman jeered at by men. Sometimes harsh, though always vibrant and superbly written, the poems chronicle what it's like to travel and live in Mexico, the United States, and Europe. The pieces recount events some would prefer to avoid; for instance, the brutal 2014 massacre of Mexican students and the 1616 Tepehuán revolt. Sánchez is also not afraid to catalog the ugly and scarred: semen, spit, mouse shit, and dead fetuses all make appearances. But how she captures the world of the senses: "Watch how I shield/ my ears from the tiny blades// of the cricket song,/ but I still love// the way the evening rages on." Written in English, with occasional Spanish phrases, this collection offers an exploration of what it is to live, love, and suffer on this Earth: "Guerra a fuego y sangre: where the bones clatter// from the sapodilla trees." VERDICT Brutal, raw, yet forgiving in the tradition of Walt Whitman, this work is not to be missed.—Doris Lynch, Monroe Cty. P.L., Bloomington, IN

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555977788
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 07/11/2017
Pages: 96
Sales rank: 377,216
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.40(d)

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 —
La Cueva

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

of Christ?

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,

so tenderly!

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.

Las Pulgas

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 Loop

The silences are copulating again. Look,

Madrid, Spain

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,

my name

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"
by .
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.

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