What Men Want

The talk between them at the table, three pairs

of men and women, husbands and wives,

was of men and women, husbands and wives,

and therefore edgy, so he began

his contribution to it cautiously:

an anecdote of several years before,

he thought perhaps his wife recalled —

about the way that men will look

at women in the street? She didn’t? Well,

a chance sighting from afar at first,

tracked to the middle distance

of a busy city center street.

He’d sheltered from a sun-shower

in a storefront when he caught sight

of her, a flash of white legs like…

like a birch, itself in a fog of other trees.

“The masterful observer ever,”

his wife put in, “and your position was,

of course, that everything moved toward you, for you.”

“I wouldn’t have yet been made aware of that —

anyhow, this woman was someone

to draw an eye already alert to women

in that way men have in cities…”

— “Just in cities?”

another of the wives said.

“In cities especially, I think.

Can I maybe get on with this?

Because whether sighted from far off,

middistant, or passing close, it’s all sidelong

somehow, peripheral carnality,

barely sensation, hardly imagined.

Looking at women, we see them —”

“You see, you look. How can you help it?”

said the longest married of the men.

“— first one and then another, and in them

vague shapes of our desire, leg and breast,

a face we’ll just have time to think

pretty or haughty, before another comes,

some unformed thought of touch,

some laying on of eye…”

Ach men,

vat do men vant, daht iss ze kvestion,”

this from his wife’s best friend,

drawled in a Dietrich imitation.

“What does a man want to see those moments

looking, but the other lives he might be living?

though he couldn’t say, might not know,

is happy with his own?

And when in the general scan all at once —”

Here he makes a camera of his hands,

showing how a pan becomes a zoom,

close-up, signifying how

broadcast lust takes particular root.

“— an instant like those in which nothing happens

resembles one in which so much can.

Whole lives, we say, can turn on them,

begin in one of them.

That lovely woman there in the crowd:

slim ankles, a skirt and matching jacket

I hadn’t seen before, billowing

a little and her hair, too, freshly cut

and styled, blowing across her face,

its dull cherry flare the giveaway.

I had to laugh to myself,

‘the suit became her,’ she turning out to be

you, my wife of some years by then,

do you remember?”

“I remember

meeting you by chance downtown

a time or two. So what did you discover

through this rarest of coincidences?”

“At first the irony amused me —

you know, ‘Beware, the life

that you imagine could be your own.’

What stayed with me in force, though,

was that I might again, anew, newly,

imagine this very life of mine.”


Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in the Bronx, N.Y., Jason Sommer is the son of a Holocaust survivor and has written about the Holocaust in his most recent book, “The Man Who Sleeps in My Office” (University of Chicago Press). His previous books are “Other People’s Troubles” (1997) from the same press, and “Lifting the Stone” (Forest Books, 1991). Sommer has been honored with a Whiting Foundation Writer’s Fellowship. He teaches at Fontbonne University in St. Louis.

“What Men Want” — the title is a gender flip on a famous question of Freud’s — has an easy conversational style. The speaker tells a dinner party anecdote, and in recording the byplay of interpretations and interruptions, the poet demonstrates the difficulty of delivering a feeling past the battle lines of gender. Behind it all, and very appropriate for this time in the Jewish calendar, is the possibility of renewal, which is also difficult, yet something for which we all wish.

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