Plain China

Lake Mendota, WI

by Clare Mao · Grinnell College
Chimera, Madeline Rile Smith · Tyler School of Art

In memory of JVN (1993-2012)



Open water at dawn, and I can think of nothing
else but you. Boy. Nineteen. Charming and heavy-
weight handsome, with a voice like a gentle tide, full
and sure. In the swagger of your greeting, I heard the lilt
of a promise, and then you opened your throat,
spit the seed of a song I played the ten hours


until sunrise. Boy. Nineteen. 7:00 a.m. Hour
of too early, of too soon, of there had to be nothing
for you there. This morning, the banks are heavy
with the gold of your ghost, fish bellies full.
And Lake Mendota is sorry. There is a patch of light
always washing ashore I suspect escaped from your throat:


your last breath, coursing throughout
a body we have been slowly rebuilding back into ours.
Boy. Nineteen. At first, we had nothing
left but your name and some soft sand, weighing heavy
on your father’s shoulders. He remains hopeful,
looking in the rooms of his memory for a last light


with your name on it he can still switch on. There are lights
we all want to switch on. Boy. Nineteen. We are thorough
in grief, until all that is left is the skeleton of our
collective memory, chewed in our mouths to nothing.
Memory like your body, water-logged and heavy.
Memory like your young heart, too full


to float. Memory like your last mouthful
of freshwater lake, drained ever so slightly.
Just enough for the gardens in our throats.
Boy. Nineteen. It was the earliest hour
of the brightest day of the year and if nothing
else, the August sun remembers, heavy,


bloated, and sorry. In the years since, we have done our
best to be careful with what is left. The water of your grave, backlit
and black deep. Something blooms in the back of my throat.
Boy. Nineteen. Do you know that I still can’t say your
name without wanting to cry? It has left me with nothing.


John. Sometimes it’s hard to think about anything
else but your heart full of water, your throat
full of light. Our gardens, heavy with fruit.

About the Author

Clare Mao · Grinnell College

Clare Mao is from Queens, New York; she recently graduated from Grinnell, where she studied history and Chinese. She now works in publishing in New York. Her poem first appeared in The Grinnell Review.

About the Artist

Madeline Rile Smith · Tyler School of Art

Madeline Rile Smith recently graduated from the Tyler School of Art with a BFA in Glass. Her work has been featured in New Glass Review Volume 35, Sculpture NOW! with the Washington Sculpture’s group, and Craft Forms at the Wayne Art Center. Madeline teaches flameworking and glassblowing at the Crefeld School in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania. Her artwork first appeared in The Adroit Journal.