Eddie Matthews considers the wider context of the latest collection of poems from Erika L Sanchez, Lessons on Expulsion, and what they might tell us about issues outside of the American experience.
The southern border of the United States is not static. It has a pulse. The narrator in Erika L. Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion feels the rhythm of this pulse by telling stories of desperate men, vengeful mothers, and callous cities—each making demands on her body. The poems are a meditation on how borders breed uncertainty. Uncertainty carries fear. Fear inspires action. And the vulnerable get hurt.
In the fifth poem of the collection, ‘Amá’, a teenage girl leaves the protection of the matriarch in search of the renewal only available in mountains, desert, on the street, and in Oaxaca. She feels at once free and hollow—storing memories never to be shared with Amá:
I feel like an unfinished poem / because I’m always trying to bridge the difference
Bridging the difference is something that pervades not just life at the border, but life without a concept of home—an identity formed as an amalgam of different places spread across multiple countries or continents.
In ‘Crossing’ the narrator describes how her parents were stuffed in the boot of a Cadillac and smuggled across the border, ending up in a cockroach-ridden basement of Chicago. She describes her own immigrant experience, living in Spain:
When asked where I am from / what can I possibly say? / I am you, in part, I suppose
A discussion of borders is a reflection on identity, for borders make binary that which is not. Sánchez challenges this tendency—the alienation found in her poetry comes not from an unease with a specific place, but with the insistence that she must divide what she considers whole—the Mexican roots of her family, her upbringing in America, and the Spanish heritage of the former.
Much like the caravan currently seeking asylum in the U.S., these poems explore the dread of not knowing, or having control over, one’s own fate. This anxiety mirrors the countdown to 29 March 2019, a date for which the BBC says Britain is on track but admits the ambiguity of what comes next. The period of waiting provides time for divisions to entrench themselves further, or for bridging the difference like Sánchez’s persistent narrator.
Beauty in the collection is not communicated through description, but through recognition. Sánchez recognises the humanity of the immigrants, prostitutes, addicts, mothers, and children, demonstrating an awareness that the propulsive pace of life usually doesn’t allow. Waiting can provide the space for this type of thought. Author David Foster Wallace describes how we have a choice to ‘experience a crowded, hot, slow… situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars.’
The reward of this type of awareness is the capacity to learn. In practice, this means reading the eighth poem of the collection, ‘Las Pulgas’, and considering how the young woman landed in this Tijuana club, what drove the man who is tugging off her panties there, and how this environment could change. Learning one of Sánchez’s lessons means considering who suffers from the decisions we make at the border. It begs the question that if we were to take her lessons seriously—would we react to uncertainty like we do?
Lessons on Expulsion is available now from: Graywolf Press