Why I Chose Erika L. Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club


Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your copy of Lessons on Expulsion, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Erika, you’ll need to to subscribe by May 20!

I want to start with these lines from Erika L. Sánchez’s poem “Crossing, which appears not quite halfway through this collection.

…Sometimes coyotes
are not desert wolves, they’re men
with mustaches, mirrored
sunglasses, who shovemy shivering
parents into the trunk of a Cadillac,
who study my mother’s wet-startled body.

And later, from the same poem:

487 years ago
people here crossed the ocean
and savagely fused with the inhabitants.
467 years later
my parents crossed the border
in the trunk of a Cadillac.
I was born in Chicago.
I dance in the foreign streets,
devour oysters until I feel guilty,
light candles, and believe in God.

The poem suggests the speaker is saying these words while she’s in Spain, enjoying life and art and food while her father is “rising before the sun / to assemble air filters,” but my first thought is to every story I’ve read in the last four months (has it only been four months?!) about ICE agents targeting members of the undocumented community in places where they should feel safe—courthouses and schools to name a couple—and wondering if her parents are okay.

In an earlier poem titled “Hija de la Chingada,”Sánchez’s writes:

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

I find myself just wanting to quote section after section, poem after poem, because I’m currently at a loss for words about this collection. I don’t have the answer to why I keep coming back to this book set in my mind yet. Certainly, Sanchez’s bluntness in the way she chronicles the difficult conditions she was raised in has something to do with it, as does the way she makes me, a monolingual reader, spend some time with a translation program so I can get a feel for what she’s saying. There is also her faith, which isn’t something I share anymore but which I can remember being profoundly moved by at another time in my life.

One of my favorite poems from the collection, “Donkey Poem,” is an ode to the “burro humilde, burro sufrido / bestia de la melancolia”  that carried Jesus into Jerusalem before the Last Supper which then expands to include the roots of Christianity, namely, the faith of the working poor, and ends with a woman kneeling before it as if to wash its hooves. It moved me in unexpected ways.

So this is going to be my goal for this month’s selection: figure out why, on a bigger scale, this book is eating me alive right now. Help me out with that! I look forward to discussing Sánchez’s collection both with our members and with Sánchez’s herself at the end of June. And remember, to receive Lessons on Expulsion and join in our conversation, you need to subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by May 20!

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →