Because I want to be good,
when I take my students
to the river
to write,
I try to set it up.
Think about what you're seeing.
(I have to shout.)
Think about what it means—
to see. (I look around.) This tree:
its branches—those bent lines have recorded
light arriving over years.
Those shapes…

(liking the way it sounds
I look at my students.
They look confused.)
…someone could tell
where other trees were blocking
light, and when,
by mapping where they bend.
Think about how the sun
shifted north and south—and back again—
each year. How it crossed
the sky a little differently
each day. Some days
there were clouds.
Some years drought.

West of here (I pull
back from pointing,
too late, unsure)
a continental seam tilts water east.
Some of that passes this tree.

I keep going:
settlement, displacement,
genocide, development, them—
and all of it, almost all of it,
is true.
But lately that seems false.
Lately, everything I
say seems false,
sounds full of being said.
My wife and I live
with fear in our cells. When
we went to the mountains
I saw low clouds tendrilling
bare elevated trees
and felt relieved by the words for that
and happy for the loneliness
I can have with her—
for someone not to tell.
I should tell my students
that I show up some days
tired and sad,
though I don't know what
to make of that
other than these sounds
most of them still can't hear.
I wish for them wonder
that I might see myself.
I wish for them words
that I might hear.
For myself, I wish for honesty,
and for the almost-
not-saying of these words
to be good
and plain.
I want to add nothing
untrue or overmuch.
Just downriver
the river branches.
When there's too much rain
it floods.

Copyright © 2019 Jonathan Farmer. This poem originally appeared on as part of the 2019 On Teaching Poem Prize. Used with permission of the author.