Back in the 1950s, when I was growing up, men in the South still operated according to a time-honored (if somewhat archaic) code of silence. It was so, at least, in Canton, Georgia, and most other small towns I knew. To speak of anything was to lessen it, to suggest it lacked a degree of gravity that necessitated thorough consideration. Where this notion came from I’m not sure, but this was post-World War II and men often found it easier to keep their feelings to themselves. This often made family gatherings grueling things to endure. I dreaded them. Sincerely. I knew (mostly from books and television) that in other cultures, men had discussions, talked about politics or philosophy or religion, told jokes and stories. Ironically, this was an age of great social upheaval—desegregation and the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, labor issues, the birth of the youth movement, a time when conversation might have opened on any number of relevant and important topics—but in my hometown in the American South, the region of the country known for its storytelling, men rarely said a word. It was pretty much a time when silence was thought to suggest strength. A while back I tried to catch the flavor of that in a little poem:
Holidays and Sundays
They’d settle in our living room, cross their legs—three or four uncles,
my old man. They’d stare at each other
and pull at their ears, while the women cleared the dishes.
Okay, maybe somebody would mention rain
and draw a nod from across the room, or a ball game
that had gone into extra innings,
but mostly there was silence, as though they’d all agreed
the world was beyond comment.
I grew up thinking this was how men behaved, holding
their thoughts close to their chests. A compliment, sure, at dinner—
the beans, the potatoes—but that was it.
Nobody fired off a joke, nobody lobbed a war story
over anybody’s bow. Not the tiniest pinch
of philosophy, politics, theology.
Only that slow retreat into calculated silence,
which wasn’t exactly boredom,
but more the silence you got at church or funerals,
which was the way you faced the sacred, or death,
or that inscrutable laughter from the kitchen.
Former Georgia Poet Laureate David Bottoms’s most recent book is We Almost Disappear, from Copper Canyon Press.