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Stories from student's Chinese heritage are incorporated into award-winning poetry

I try to make it really absurd, like a story that . . . has no ending," says second-year medical student Sai Li of his approach to writing poetry. One of his poems—reproduced here—recently won second prize in the national William Carlos Williams Poetry Competition. Open to all U.S. medical students, the competition is run by the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine.

Li's prize-winning poem is based loosely on his family's experiences in China during the 1950s and '60s. After his father and grandfather were branded as capitalists for selling clothes, his father was sent to work in the granaries as an accountant—with an "old abacus" like the one mentioned in the poem. The poem's reference to killing sparrows actually happened as well—during the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1961 under Mao Tse-tung—and led to a huge locust infestation.

Also editor-in-chief of the new DMS literary journal, Lifelines (see the Summer issue of Dartmouth Medicine for details), Li plans to keep writing poetry through and after medical school. His dream is to be based in the U.S. and spend summers in China— practicing in villages outside Beijing, while writing down his patients' life stories and incorporating them into poetry.


DMS student Sai Li is pictured here a couple of years ago in Beijing.

Red East
By Sai Li

This is my father performing tai-chi, hair hit
By silver circles through canopies of moon-lit
Pine trees, swift and sharp, like impromptu ant
Migrations. The hands move with wind, slant
In East and West, mystical planes intersecting.
He was a painter, brave strokes attracting
Black chicks with seven well-placed dots
Of his sable brush, as imperfect circle blots
Onto soft paper, taking shape, and becoming
Alive. Until the Red Guards broke in drumming.
A counter-revolutionary, they sent him to Dalian
With an old abacus, to count the kilos of oat bran.
At dawn, they made him slap his hands in the air,
Shake the trees to rouse the sparrows, scare
The vermin eating all the rice in the granaries.
He watched intently as they flew from trees to trees,
Awakened from sleep by rattles of willow branches.
He laughed as their tired bodies fell, appendages
Flapping in momentary unison before the crash
In impossible angles, amazed at how clean the flesh
On the backs of their wings were. Soon, locusts invaded
The fields and devoured the green in sight, this negated
The need for granaries. So they told him to read the Red
Book. Wave the Red Book. But he didn't drop dead
Like the hungry teacher who gorged on too many dried
Yams and bowls of wintermelon soup. But he cried.

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