We each were given three licks
for throwing snowballs against the side
of the school and making them stick. It snowed
so rarely we didn’t know what snow
could do. Lessons were over but we
were lingering outside before
we walked the alleyway and the field
where our tracks in the snow would jumble together
and then untangle on our way home.
I had the farthest way to go,
but not so far, and a paper route
and other chores before the dark.
Homework was nowhere in my mind.
I was trying to make a face on the wall,
but it just looked like a bunch of blotches.
That was all right with me, though, I liked
the blotchy white against the brick.
It looked like several moons were stranded
in the cold universe of the wall.
The principal said we’d broken a rule,
but we didn’t know the rule existed.
Our protest sailed over his head.
The principal said we were lying now
and he was going to light us up.
So, that’s what he did, three licks each.
A horse in a painting over his desk,
where we had to bend and place our hands,
was supposed to wink with every lick.
Whipping a boy with a wooden paddle
doesn’t always change his mind
about the universe or snow.
It wasn’t exactly the plank of reason,
that paddle on which we signed our names—
a record the principal liked to keep—
and there’s not much principal behind it
and it didn’t even hurt that much.
Maurice Manning‘s first book of poetry, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, was selected by W.S. Merwin for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and his fourth book, The Common Man, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. One Man’s Dark is his sixth collection and the first to be published by Copper Canyon Press. His poetry is concerned with the geography, history, and culture of rural Kentucky, where he lives with his family. Manning is a former Guggenheim fellow and regularly teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. He is currently professor of English and Writer-in-Residence at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky.