The Army Dreamer (excerpt)

Dong Li

Lilac, a Requiem

July, late snow. July, lilacs not yet bloomed in full. Day began as usual. Coyotes howled as if it were night. A dog bark, then another. All the dogs barking. Dogs could not venture out last night. Rice bushels peasants gathered wasted in their courtyards. There was some shuffling in the snow.

facing the snow, lilac up the ragged road

No one knew how many roads she had walked before this. No one knew how many bridges she had crossed before summer. No one knew her, and it had snowed. Wiping off the snow, she dug her face into the bushels. They smelled of summer. The bushels were frozen, and so was her face. It was as if time had frozen and whitened into snow. In the snow her long dress looked purple. She always wore a purple dress, no matter the season. Something she had kept for years. When summer never snowed. When it always summered. Her feet purpled. The dogs stopped barking. They were chewing on her bones. She was covered in snow. From some distance, the edge of her dress. Her mind started to drift until it reached purple. Then her eyes opened. She saw summer coming.

down the ragged road, lilacs snow

The first time she was allowed to stroll in the garden, it was summer. Lilacs had already bloomed. Their petals purpled the garden. She collected lilacs and brewed tea out of them. Then she put on a lilac dress. She met her first man and her many men. She felt nothing. The blood that flowed from her purpled and paled. Purple in flood. Snow thawed. Her body stiffened. Like a tree. On that morning no light was turned. She heard lilacs blooming. She has been dead for a long time. Purple lilac her only friend. Deep in the rice bushels, her body. Her mind frozen, lilac came to a stall. Driftless bird, a song.

facing the snow, lilac up the ragged road
down the ragged road, lilacs snow

Last night. It snowed. The garden a mess. Flakes drifted into her dream. Screaming was heard, eventually. Wrapped in cotton. By the stove. Light was turned on that morning. She opened her eyes to a world she saw for the first time. She shook. Her parents trembled in the fleeting air. Some steps in the snow-soaked garden. Disappearing. Covered.

This morning. She faces her. Shadow. Lonely.
Before knowing.

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Dong Li is a multilingual author who translates from Chinese, English, French, and German. Born and raised in China, he was educated at Deep Springs College and Brown University. His poems have been published by Conjunctions, Fence, Kenyon Review, POETRY, and elsewhere. He has received fellowships from Akademie Schloss Solitude, Camargo and Humboldt Foundations, MacDowell, PEN/Heim Translation Fund, Yaddo, and others. His debut poetry collection, The Orange Tree, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press as the inaugural winner of the Phoenix Emerging Poet Book Prize.

Chicago, Illinois

"What Li, the recipient of the inaugural Phoenix Emerging Poet Book Prize, does in his first collection is combine the excruciatingly personal with an essential oral history of China. The poet compounds words into feelings so readily familiar that by reading them one is immediately transposed to a different place and into a story. . . . The Orange Tree is, simply put, transformative."
Booklist starred review

"Dong Li’s debut collection is tenderly premised around the multiplicity of language. With a translator’s precision and an ethnographer’s comprehensiveness, The Orange Tree narrates generations of a family’s 20th-century history."
Poetry Foundation

The Orange Tree is a remarkable, powerful book of innovative lyric that recaptures the horrors of contemporary Chinese history by use of personal and collective memory—along with the memory of rivers, blossoms, fruit, and flesh. Li seeks and invents a language of grief that meanders, exquisitely and unflinchingly, across family lineage, historical violence, and trauma as he channels the lives of those who have met unspeakable atrocities. Li, a multilingual, transnational poet and translator, is a time traveler of our endlessly violent world.”
— Don Mee Choi, author of DMZ Colony, winner of the National Book Award

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