Claiming the Female Body: Lessons on Expulsion by Erika L. Sánchez
Erika L. Sánchez’s courageous debut collection Lessons on Expulsion begins with a rite of passage, a poem titled “Quincerañera,” which is one of Sánchez’s first lessons in expulsion, an expulsion from the relative safety of childhood. The speaker acknowledges this ceremony of becoming a woman by marking the body, first with a navel piercing, itself symbolic of the act of the child rebirthing the self as woman. The next act of claiming comes in the form of a tattoo, “A fat man in a basement / tattoos a scraggly moon / on your hip, anything to smother / the soft constant vertigo, to stitch / a spirit so riddled with leeches.” This ritualistic marking of the body is an attempt to claim ownership over the body, which is the struggle ultimately at the spiraling center of this collection.
The opening poem of a debut collection gives us the first glimpse of a poet, here as a young woman in terror over the reality of becoming a woman. Though quincerañera literally means fifteen-year old female, and this poem is certainly a portrait of a teenage girl, it also evokes the traditional ceremony of presenting a virginal young woman to potential suitors. This young woman is determined to do anything to claim her body before any man does. Lessons on Expulsion begins as a novel might, giving us the both an early portrait of the main character, and laying the groundwork for the central theme of the book. Sánchez sets scenes like a playwright, builds characters like a novelist and organizes like an essayist. No wonder she writes outside of this genre; I look forward to reading her YA novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, coming out later this year with Knopf, and the collection of essays she is currently working on.
The act of expulsion implies a sense of original belonging. These itinerant poems pack themselves into “soft leather bags” and keep travelling, from the roach infested basements of Chicago, to the crime-riddled highways in Mexico, out of the arms of a lover in Spain, into the subways of New York, they are restlessly searching for that feeling of belonging. Sánchez longs to understand her origins, where she belongs amongst all these expulsions; she writes in her poem “Crossing,” “I want to understand / the violence tangled in this tissue, / the desert threaded in this flesh.” These are unwavering poems that observe with the journalist’s eye the dark alleys and seedy motels of the world, and ask how can a woman ever be her naked self in such a violent world.
Sánchez's poems grapple with their own eroticism, woman’s hips are “eternal bells” and their breasts obscene peaches, the body both bruised and ripened fruit at a marketplace. The male gaze is ever present, branding the flesh as cattle. Sánchez likens the women’s body to animals, as donkeys and dogs, as the men in these poems often treat them as such. In “Narco” a woman is pulled from a bus, raped and left for dead on the side of the road, in “Las Pulgas” a drug trafficker remembers the flesh he’s dissolved in acid while getting a lap dance, in “Orchid” a woman is sold into sex slavery for $1,000. Sex in these poems, even when romantic or consensual, is fraught with confusion, with shame and humiliation, “When you say available, / what you mean is pornographic. / Like a muted orgasm, / you are wet and brimming / with vague disgust.”
Gloria Anzaldúa wrote, “It’s not on paper that you create but in your innards, in the gut and out of living tissue—organic writing I call it.” Erika L. Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion was written from the gut, from the horrors and ecstasies of the female body, this remarkable collection pulses with raw experience.
Erika L. Sánchez