Erika L. Sánchez
Lessons on Expulsion
reviewed by Angelica Julia Davila
Lessons on Expulsion, Erika L. Sánchez’s debut poetry collection, gave me pleasure in the same way that looking at Ellsworth Kelly’s Green Relief With Blue gave me when I stood in front of it in awe while at the contemporary art museum The Broad . Yet, just as with Kelly’s artwork, I struggled to articulate what about it gave me such content and exhilaration upon experiencing it. Both works appear serene at first, and yet there is a wild underside to each. In an attempt to better understand the underside of this poetry collection, I encountered the dilemma of how to approach her work: as a fellow writer, as a Latina, or as a blank slate.
As humans we are considerably removed from being mere blank slates. Did my pleasure while reading Sánchez’s work stem from finding several of her poems relatable as a Latina woman? Poems, such as “Hija de la Chingada”, with sections like:
2. 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-tittied women dancing with a geriatric host.
This poem like many others infuses the English and Spanish language together. To a Spanish-speaker, like me, each word resonates. The line “hija de la chingada” burns in my own experience being on the receiving end of such a stinging remark from my own mother. However, would such a poem still find a home in someone of non-Latina lineage? Does my ability to quickly recollect exactly what show “big-tittied women dancing/ with a geriatric host” refers to alter the manner in which such a poem is read?
The trouble—and possibilities—for readers is that we will always come into a piece, a collection, an artistic object with our own experiences and pre-conceived notions. “Hija de la Chingada”, however, still offers a relatable aspect for other readers. Strip away my ability to read and speak Spanish, and you still have the line “hija de la chingada”, italicized and separated from the rest of the lines, carrying its own weight and importance, and significantly enough, never translated like the other Spanish line that follows it. It is a heavy phrase no matter if the reader is Latina or not. This section also provides an image into the gender dynamics at play during this encounter. This jarring juxtaposition of the virtuous abstinence a woman is expected to project while the media celebrates “big-tittied woman dancing” translates through all languages.
Other poems, such as “Crossing”, initially tapped into my identity as a Latina writer and child of immigrants. “Crossing” chronicles the journey of Sánchez’s parents as immigrants, from the desert to the places they live and work, all while attempting to reconcile Sánchez’s own identity as their daughter and as a writer. “Crossing” contains poignant stanzas, such as:
While I’m at the Prado enjoying Goya and Velázquez, my father is rising before the sun to assemble air filters. On my way home I want to read a poem aloud on the Metro about my illiterate grandmother, about my father with the glue burns on his hands.
This poem provides another juxtaposed image, as “Hija de la Chingada” did, but rather than it being about gender dynamics, it transverses generations. It is a poem that attempts to reconcile the guilt that the writer feels in living a life that is considerably different than that of her parents while also finding art within these differences. It is a type of guilt that, through my own experiences, I find hauntingly relatable. The feeling that remains is the thrill to explore the world and to be an artist, among the backdrop of the hard work and sacrifice of immigrant parents. Yet, a reader does not need immigrant parents or to pursue creative expression in order to feel this poem resonate. “Crossing” still carries the idea of an individual trying to form her own identity, while acknowledging this difference in where she came. We are not blank slates; we are constantly exploring and understanding what makes us, well, ourselves. This search is encapsulated in “Crossing” where other readers with differing experiences will still find it memorable and pleasing.
In an interview with Phillip Williams of Glappitnova, Sánchez explains that she does not think about an audience when writing. Instead, she looks toward images that reverberate in her mind. Furthermore, she explains, “I’ve thought a lot about this as Latino/a poet. I’ve been asked if I feel obligated to write about certain things and the truth is I don’t. I feel a responsibility to myself first, and then hope that others will connect to what I’m saying… I consider myself a Latina/Chicana writer because that’s who I am not because I write about certain subjects”. These connections will be easy for the reader to form, as each poem weaves through what it means to further explore the self.
Lessons on Expulsion is the manifestation of the self through the use of images and intrepid exploration of the internal. Sánchez maneuvers through words, places, and people as she further exhumes her own identity for readers to latch on to and explore their own experiences. This is exemplified in the collection’s opening poem, “Quinceañera”, a title that denotes a coming of age in Latina culture. A coming of age signifies an exploration of one’s self, and “Quinceañera” further shows that we become who we are through what we encounter. Sánchez directly alludes to Walt Whitman’s “There was a Child went Forth” in her “Quinceañera” by quoting a few lines from the poem. In Whitman’s poem, we are introduced to a child who is shaped by the objects that he encounters and the objects “became a part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years”. This idea of experiences as objects of self-exploration is prevalent throughout Lessons on Expulsion where readers will inevitably find a string to tie a knot into their own identity.