Lessons on Expulsion
By Erika L Sánchez
Reviewed by Ananda Lima
Erica Sánchez's unwavering poetry collection Lessons on Expulsion opens with an epigraph from Larry Levis's fourteen-page poem "Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope": "Love's an immigrant, it shows itself in its work. / It works for almost nothing." The passage serves as a tribute to Levis. It also ushers the reader into the rich thematic web of Sánchez's book, introducing some of its recurring themes (migration and displacement, familial and sexual love, power structures and injustice), as well as other echoes and intersections between the two poets' work.
Sexuality and violence are also major themes of Sánchez's collection, which is aptly grounded in the body: its textures, secretions, excretions, orifices, pleasures, and suffering. The body is present in its totality or its parts (back, navel, nipples, fingers, etc.) and it is also present as metaphor: "the silence climbs you / like a man until you hear / the meaty flaps of God inside you;" "colors as beautiful as the spilled / brains of a bird;" or "somewhere, a man serves / champagne, a pair of breasts / on a plate." And objects outside the body are seen in contrast with the body: "Mictlán, / place of the fleshless, / electric-wired fences."
Sánchez faces violence and sexuality head-on. Her resoluteness feels purposeful and important to the work, necessary for the truth of these poems. It also provides an effective tension between her direct expression of these themes and the way those themes are usually obfuscated. Since Sánchez herself treats the descriptions quite naturally, this invites the reader to question the nature of her surprise when she encounters honest passages on violence and sexuality. A reader's pause on the directness of the expressions of sexuality may be part of a different manifestation of the same systemic problems associated with sexuality, violence, and the body Sanchez reveals in the catcallers, mothers, and murderers of women in her poems.
Sexuality, the body, and violence have complex relationships to oppression: there is the targeting of sexuality as a rationale for marginalizing certain populations (women, the LGBTQ community), the related loop of sexualizing marginalized populations (women, women of color), and the enforcement of oppression through violence, including sexual violence. The history of sexual violence is recorded in the very bodies of marginalized populations. Lessons on Expulsion interweaves these three tightly related themes beautifully. Sánchez offers a complex presentation that at times reflects their links, yet gives each element their proper weight and does not reduce each theme to simplistic explanations.
Identity is present behind the contexts or occasions of the poems or sometimes alluded to more directly. In "The Poet at Fifteen," Sánchez writes, "You wear faded black / and paint your face white as the blessed / teeth of Jesus / because brown isn't high art / unless you are a beautiful savage." And later, in "A Woman Runs on the First Day of Spring," she writes, "And if I say / my body is its own crumbling / country, if I say I am always / my own home—then / what does that make me?" Passages like these present a complex view of identity, rather than a shallow performance of it, full of stereotypes and simplifications.
One of many examples of this is how the collection's opening poem subverts the idea of a quinceañera. The speaker's quinceañera contrasts directly with the idea of a princess-cut dress and a large traditional party organized by her family. Instead, we begin with the lonely boredom of a transgressive speaker alone in her house: "Summer boredom flutters its / sticky wings. You guzzle / cooking wine, gag on the old whiskey / you find the pantry."
The poem does bring in elements of a traditional quinceañera in unexpected ways. For example, Sánchez beautifully evokes the transition between childhood and adulthood celebrated in a quinceañera with the presence of a safety pin. But here the pin is divorced from the context of a baby and is used instead to pierce the speaker's navel: "you pierce your navel / with a safety pin." Throughout the poem, we find the glittery vibrancy of a celebration, but it is not a celebration that pretends innocence or that things are going well, as a traditional quinceañera might: it is a celebration in the speaker's transgressional, self-asserting, and self-harming terms, aware of the sadness, pain, and silence that it covers.
Across the collection's three unnamed sections, the book features different settings, situations, and speakers, including some that might be biographically linked to one recurrent specific speaker (which might mirror some of Sanchez's experiences) and others which arise from different characters based on news reports. But the collection is still very cohesive. The images stand on their own in individual poems, but together they also accumulate and build a lexicon of Sánchez's own. Yellow and white images repeat, sometimes in wet and slippery forms associated with bodily secretions (semen, milk) or food (eggs, milk, cream), but also associated with other things (faces, teeth, sheets, "jaundiced" paint on the walls of a basement, a wig, a wet dress, a boat, the hiss of heat, a pearl, hours). The recurrences create threads that help unify the collection. They also, via association, add an additional layer of meaning to the words: after encountering yellow and white associated with the body, or with wet slippery textures repeatedly in the collection, future occurrences of those words evoke a shade of those textures and meanings, even when they're applied to other potentially dry, solid objects.
Although the collection's different thematic and recurring elements make the book work well as a collection, there is also a lot of merit in the individual poems and lines. Sánchez gives us descriptions that are built simply, but do a lot of work. In "La Cueva," for example, "factory hands" and "hormone-softened faces" lay out a scene with textured tactile detail and also provide a great deal of context and background information on the participants in the story: "The men / with the factory hands raise their fingers / to the hormone-softened faces." Consider also the following lines from the same poem: "Briefly, we see / how they've learned to wipe the smeared / mirrors inside them." These lines provide a clear picture of the literal action of the scene, a meaningful metaphor (internal mirrors being wiped clean), a sense of danger in visualizing the metaphor (the sharp edges of the mirrors in such delicate skin, the possibility they would break), a link to the thematic web and recurring elements in the collection (vagina, bodily secretions). And because both the literal (reaching down and wiping themselves) and the metaphorical (reaching down and wiping a mirror inside themselves) sides of the passage are evocative and so visually similar, they create an active oscillation between the literal and metaphorical. Oscillations like this make for a powerful, wrenching experience, a poetry collection that is both emotionally and physically stimulating.