2021 Hippocrates Young Poets Prize Shortlist

2021 Hippocrates Young Poets’ Prize for Poetry and Medicine


Euphemisms for Cancer
Yvanna Vien Tica   Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines

Mai ho'oka'awale (separating sickness)
Rhys Pearce   Hawick, Roxburghshire, Scotland, UK

November Is When I Become 
Rachel Brooks   Trumbull, Connecticut, USA

Elane Kim   Walnut Creek, California, USA

still life: quarantine
Olivia Yang   Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

About the poems, judge Anna Jackson said: "Every entry for this award had something to commend it for – these were poems that took important matters into consideration with interesting approaches to form, lyrical beauty, original imagery, startling perspectives or beautiful design, and some of the best poems combined more than one of these elements.  Even so, a long list of about a dozen or so poems really stood out from the rest, and of these, five poems in particular had something about them I kept wanting to return to.”

Judge Anna Jackson added the following comments about each of the shortlisted poems.

Euphemisms for Cancer

This is a deceptively simple poem that presents a small scene in an ongoing story.  It could be a short story, just as a sonnet could be an essay, except for its brevity that perfectly fits the material to the length of a poem and opens it up to the resonance with which it is charged.  The opening sentence establishes the narrative control which distinguishes the poem, beginning with the fact of the grandmother’s terminal illness before introducing the family picnic during which the family will try not to think of what the poem, and the picnic, can’t help but be about.  The scene is so vividly realised, I found myself thinking about it often after reading the poem, almost as if it were a memory of my own, or the memory of a dream so real it seems like a scene from an alternative version of your life.

Ma’i ho’ok’awale (separating sickness)

What is medical, what is literary?  Both frameworks are brilliantly evoked in this poem, which is given the title of a sickness, and opens with lines echoing the opening of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “In fair Kalaupapa, where we lay our scene / two houses, / unalike in dignity, saw the world too differently…”  The tragedy of a thousand marked-out graves is given a sustained, and dignified, consideration here from a contemporary perspective that remains haunted by a past we cannot understand, by the ongoing need of ghosts to be heard.  In a year in which lockdowns and quarantines are a common experience, the story of the patients quarantined at the Kalaupapa leprosarium call for renewed compassion, a compassion the poet can only wish (with brilliant word-choice) were “as fulminant as / the diseases that still infect these lands.”

November Is When I Become

The title of the poem opens a sentence that is concluded in the poem itself with the word “double-jointed.”  In between the title, and the first word of the poem’s first couplet, is a dedication “For Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome,” which makes the title itself appear as another couplet.  Everything is doubled in this artful poem – the poem’s speaker has a cousin as fragile and elastic as herself; and a further doubling is offered in the description they give of themselves as “bovine,” and the extended series of comparisons between themselves and cows that this gives rise to, contextualised with reference to an article about “Dermatosparaxis in two Limousin calves”.  This is a poem as much about the love between the cousins as it is about their shared condition, beautifully expressed through the intricately worked lines.


This poem is both simple and mysterious in its imagery - creasing as memory and mourning, grief as a closed window and an unending hallway.  Without being completely sure of what it means that “You traded your lungs for a taste of drowning. / I traded my hands for a diagnosis,” I find the balance of the lines beautiful, suggestive, both profoundly sad and somehow consoling.  The poem invites the reader both to “consider” and to “look,” and offers both images and ideas, repetition and renewal.  “In between bodies there are songs,” the poem concludes, as if gesturing towards its own lyricism, but it goes a step further, finding “something / like remedy” not in the songs but in the in between. 

still life: quarantine

The gorgeous, grotesque excess of the detritus accumulating in a room over quarantine is reflected in the intricate, palimpsestic arrangement of this poem, in which sentences in italics are interleaved with the descriptive couplets, and images introduced at the opening of the poem are returned to at its close, the moth still masticating, the pear still oozing its intestinal pus.  This is a wonderful visceral account of the effects of lockdown, while at the same time capturing the psychological torment, as a body is allowed to starve, unfurling is resisted, desire is repressed, memory falters, but still, the wish to see a garden blooming remains alive. 

Biographies of the shortlisted poets and inspirations for their poems

Rachel Brooks

Rachel Brooks is a high school senior from Connecticut, USA. She is a 2020 National Student Poets Program Semi-Finalist and Adroit Journal Poetry Mentee. Her work is forthcoming in Barren Magazine. She has been recognized by the National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the Claudia Ann Seaman Award for Poetry, Smith College, and the Poetry Society of the UK, among others. Rachel is first author of the medical study “Prevalence of Gastrointestinal, Cardiovascular, Autonomic, and Allergic Manifestations in Hospitalized Patients with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome,” appearing in Oxford University Press’s peer-reviewed journal RheumatologyHer research has been featured at the international Ehlers-Danlos Society ECHO Scientific Summit for Medical Professionals.

About the inspiration for her shortlisted poem, she said: "I wrote “November Is When I Become” as an ode to the fragility, elasticity, and often-eroding effects of the group of rare connective tissue disorders, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS). Readers will notice the cattle imagery: After a veterinarian told me that EDS affects dogs and other animals, I read an article on two Limousin calves—full siblings—presenting with EDS. The cold terminology of the article caught me in its precision: the metrical methodology of the post mortem, the diagnosis, the discovered linear fissures and laxity of these cows’ joints and skin. In response, I wanted to write a poem that was elastic—inspired not only by this case-report but also by my experiences navigating EDS and witnessing the disorder in a cousin."

She added: "This poem is a memento to a mutation’s effects, a familial relationship, and the connections that disease too often loosens. What the speaker finds: A genetic defect erodes an esophagus’ lining just as disorder and distance dissolve people, crowding memories with limbs that are too flimsy to lift. The words here ask, what has disease left us with? Do we become our disease just as we become diagnosed? Or does disease shape us in such a way that we become another kind of echo: something greater, something quietly grazing between the lines of a gaping verse."

Rhys Pearce Headshot for shortlisting

Rhys Pearce is a 16-year-old writer and poet from South Scotland, where he is currently either reading, playing guitar, or having his 3rd existential crisis of the day. He has been writing for about 4 years, in which time he has performed spoken word to a live audience, been shortlisted for the Scottish Young Writer of the Year Award, and featured in an anthology published by Austin Poets International. He is currently a poetry/prose editor at Kalopsia Literary Magazine, and a regular contributor for The Youth Outlook.

About his shortlisted poem Mai Ho’oka’awale, he said: "Moving between themes of medical bias, colonialism, and the longstanding prejudice against the victims of illness, Mai Ho’oka’awale examines the legacy of leprosy in Hawaii. Due to an influx of European immigration in the 19th century, leprosy (which in Hawaiian is called mai ho’oka’awale, literally translated as “the separating sickness”) became an epidemic in Hawaii. This led to the establishment of a colony at kalaupapa on the island of Molokai, which aimed to isolate the victims from the rest of molokai’s citizens. However, not only does this illustrate a mistaken view of the level of danger leprosy poses to the vast majority of people, it also facilitated inequality, as European victims of the disease would be allowed to stay with their families, while native sufferers were forced to relocate to the colony. Due to this misconception and bias, these natives were largely uncared for, and many of them died not of their disease, but from the lack of resources in the settlement. The poem then widens out the concept of misconception fuelling discrimination by referring to the situation nowadays, in which certain illnesses, such as mental illnesses, are still heavily stigmatized. It ultimately concludes that until compassion is offered to all victims of illness, the prejudice against them will continue to, in many causes, be just as fatal as the more naturally-occurring symptoms of disease."  

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