Blow jobs is the short answer, but if you’ll pardon the expression, McCullough has her tongue in her cheek when she writes this in “What Men Really Want,” the poem from which her new collection’s title comes. What men really want is the mysterious tenderness of human exchange, she suggests in further elaboration. It’s not so simple/ it’s just that simple. The eponymous poem ends with the beautiful line, “Begin/with the word mystery. Don’t stop,” suggesting the ultimate ineffability of human motivation, fundamental though it may be.
Divided into four parts with roughly the same thematic thrust, What Men Want is about more than “men” or “want,” but it’s a great title, and the collection lives up to it. The poems are about love, simply put – what men really want. Those in the first section explore the love of grown men and women, including marriage, affairs, and friendship. Indeed, in the poem entitled “Marriage” she shows us the tender, private exchanges between a husband and a wife. Like all love, they are complicated/ simple, enduring/evanescent, homage, McCullough writes, “to the chaos the secret of us/is and the price we willingly pay again and again.”
The poems are about love, simply put – what men really want. Those in the first section explore the love of grown men and women, including marriage, affairs, and friendship.
It’s as if, she suggests, something lasting is forged from the fleeting connection, “reducing the world to something/we can climb without fear of falling.” Indeed, the section begins with poems
whose focus is more on loss, the difficulty of holding onto things. “A Horse Called Genuflect,” “The Boy with Downs Syndrome,” “How Things Deconstruct”: all are tinged with the melancholy of things falling apart, like “the rock,/how it can’t help but surrender its elements.” This, she seems to be telling us, is the condition in which we live our lives.
The poems in the second section switch the focus to the love a parent bears her children, specifically her sons (proto men). The section opens with “The Kind of Woman She Was,” about a woman who pilfers coffee creamers from a convenience store for the barnyard cats, who rub against her ankles, “offering something like gratitude” though ultimately unaware and unappreciative “in their insolent and lucky lives” of the sacrifices she makes for them. This poem is emblematic of the rest of the poems in this section; substitute the woman for the mother, the cats for the kids, and the creamer for the loving regard: the figurative blow jobs.
Again, it’s all so simple/not so simple. Take the wonderful poem, “The World Will Never Be Dry Enough,” with its metaphorical references to bees and honey. “The taste/of grief is new on my tongue,” McCullough writes, citing ordinary examples of everyday disappointments and loss – a neighbor’s son arrested, a grandmother’s shattered bone, the loss of her son’s tooth. Can there ever be a proportionate response, a chance for healing?
Sweetness seems too dangerous
to pass on, and the best honey
has an aftertaste, signature of fields
no one would dare to visit on their own.
This poem is emblematic of the rest of the poems in this section; substitute the woman for the mother, the cats for the kids, and the creamer for the loving regard: the figurative blow jobs.
The final two sections of What Men Want widen the picture of humanity beyond the family, past intimacy, to address the pathologies that affect us all, the challenges these imply – the personal torments of “The Man with One Tattoo,” the homeless guy and his would-be savior in “The Man Who Walks”; the people in denial about the death and brutality all around them in “On the Train Out of Hammonton.” Arguably the most moving and representative of these is the haunting “Between Worlds,” from the third section.
The week bombs poured like confetti
over Arab skies, spring finally came
without fanfare or desire, and my
son was so mad, he wanted to hit
his brother for tripping him upstairs,
and I wanted to pummel them both
for the noise and laundry. It happened
the way leaves finally burst always
later than we think: my neighbor beat
his pet rabbit to death on his lawn,
the neighborhood kids at a safe
distance, intrigued adults can go
as berserk as we threaten. He hung
it on the Japanese Plum starting
to flower, and no one knew what
to do when he said It bit me, you know.
His hands were shaking a little, just
enough, I knew he wanted someone
to forgive him, a thing I couldn’t yet do,
so I went inside, lay my hands against
a bare wall over years of my sons'
fingerprints, as if they were my alibi,
not the evidence that implicates us all,
the stairwell leading nowhere but up
and down, a conduit between worlds,
refuge as transitory as the petals
of a plum tree blown across my lawn.
The narrator is not “yet” ready to forgive the man, though forgiveness seems part of the required response, on some level, recognizing the pressures the man who kills the rabbit simply cannot overcome. This is not a case of judging the man’s behavior, in a court of law, say, but of seeing through to the human failures that affect us all, cry out to us all.
The epigraphs to What Men Want both come from Freud, indicating the psychological thrust of this collection – ferreting out what makes people tick. Tellingly, one of those quotations is a confession that he has not been able to answer the question, what a woman wants. Does McCullough succeed in answering her question? Some men will certainly object to a woman presuming to know the solution to the riddle, however ironic that title may be. The cover photo of the back of a bald female head, hands pressing the skull, as if to keep it from exploding, may suggest how monumental the puzzle is, and with what modesty and poetic sensitivity, really, McCullough approaches it.