This morning, writer, DJ and Poetry Is Dead editor Daniel Zomparelli posted to Facebook a snapshot of himself lecturing – at Pecha Kucha Vancouver, on April 11 – in front of an unnaturally large PowerPoint slide featuring the front cover of a trade edition of Suzanne Somers’s only poetry collection, Touch Me. The photo garnered a slew of likes, mostly from people who seemed to regard the image as a kind of playful meme. But Zomparelli takes Suzanne Somers’s writing seriously, as poetry. And I want to think about why he might be right, because I do, too.
I own a hardcover copy of the first edition of Touch Me. Along with my Bruce Springsteen mirror and my Sex Pistols coffee mug, it’s been one of my prized possessions, for years. I’m not sure where or when I found it or bought it – probably in a remainder bin at Zellers, although it’s not struck or marked as a cut-out. I can’t imagine I paid full price, but it looks like I might have. At first, I must have thought of the book as a joke buy, but in the last decade, as it sat unblinkingly on my office bookshelf, I have come to think of her collection of poems as significant, and as worth reading properly, fully and well.
To take these poems seriously, to take Suzanne Somers at her word, you need to learn to read in a mode that the poems can support. While they present themselves as intimate, confessional lyrics, it soon becomes apparent that they will buckle and wilt under even the slightest pressure of a close reading, of trained formal scrutiny. But they’re not meant to operate as what Cleanth Brooks would have called, in the decades of his influence, the decades leading up to their publication, “well-wrought” literary artifacts. Touch Me is a key instance of what early 1970s, post-Jonathan Livingston Seagull American popular culture would have understood as aspirational self-expression: “You have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way” (Richard Bach wrote this, somewhere in the second part of his groovy fantasia). Furthermore, it’s impossible to separate poetic text from its intentional frame, from Suzanne Somers’s nascent public persona, her unabashed desire for celebrity, to make herself known, as human commodity.
Pages of the book are interspersed throughout with black-and-white images (re-textured to resemble canvas) of Somers in various wistful and contemplative poses; this isn’t, or isn’t only, a faux-naiffeint of authorial presence, but it also openly describes how that sense of intimacy can be simultaneously authentic and constructed, at once a fully-fabricated persona and the real “me” of the title, almost touchable. “I could be all those things for you,” she tells an absent lover in “Some Other Time,” or tells us as his reader/stand-ins; the line mixes the artifice of role-play with erotic candour and intentional deference—and she sustains herself, in these poems, for “him” (often, but not always, Alan Hamel, who appears in two of the photos), and, as his surrogates, for us.
The poems always, always direct themselves at concocting privacy: “I like the gentle quiet loneliness of being alone.” The redundancy here is all-too-obviously awkward – again, it bears repeating that these poems will easily crumble under too close, and to my mind too unfair, an analysis – but as a refrain it overstates the outcome that all of her poetry craves: a fiction of proximity. The untutored, off-the-cuff bathos of many of her lines – “House plants have a way of invading my privacy” – only further reinforces the sense that we keep drawing closer, poem by poem, to her unguarded self.
Wikipedia dates the publication of Touch Me at 1980, on the crest of Somers’s success on Three’s Company, but the book actually first appeared in 1973, when she had had only a handful of small roles and cameos in film and had been a regular on the TV show Mantrap. More to the point, in 1970, just prior to the composition of Touch Me, she had done a nude “test” photo-shoot for Playboy, but had refused to be photographed for the magazine the following year; those photos were eventually published in 1980 by Playboy, in response apparently to Somers’s repeated public denials that they even existed. Significantly, her disavowal of such intimate images points up the fakery, the constructedness of an all-too-close, masculine scopophilia, exactly the same sort of desire – to be looked at, and to be touched – that her book of poems unerringly affirms. Touch Me, it’s worth noting, contains a satiric poem “The Model,” which offers an extended critique of her exploitation (“The smiling girl obediently transforms . . .”) by the erotic image-mill.
But her acknowledgement that such representation, in word and in image, inherently offers falsehood and deception, is counterposed in a poem fittingly titled “Lies” to the ability of the body (“my hands, my mouth, my caress”) to deceive; corporeal “lies” are worst of all because they mark not simply an artifice but a failure of connection, a hiatus: “And now I know something is over.” The denuded body can still obfuscate and play false, but in candidly confessing her failure, Somers restores a vestigial connection with her readers, as if we were sharing a secret, her small shame. By admitting that her body lies, she strangely reaffirms its truth.
This is a kind of celebrity apophasis, a disavowal that nonetheless delivers, or at least implicitly claims to deliver, what it withholds. And it’s a confessional marketing tactic that Suzanne Somers has used throughout her working life, a tactic that a severely negative review of her failed 2005 one-woman Broadway career retrospective The Blonde in the Thunderbird (a reference to her cameo in American Graffiti), made abundantly clear:
Ms. Somers is undoubtedly sincere in her desire to bare her battles with insecurity and shame in order to serve as a model, and perhaps a healer, for those whose therapy cannot be subsidized by the sale of Torso Tracks. [. . .] Liberally laced with the bland jargon of self-help books, her story proves the peculiar truth that a victory over low self-esteem often comes at the price of a swan-dive into narcissism.
Maybe so. But it’s this inversion of “The Emperor has no clothes” – a baring all that leaves her fully veiled, publically private – that has informed her self-presentation since Touch Me first appeared. “This is a book,” it says in the one-page introduction, “about touching—about human hands and arms, eyes and mouths, lives and memories, all the instruments of touch.” Well, only in so far as Suzanne Somers can present herself as common, as typically human. “Touch me,” the title poem concludes, “For I was made to be touched. / I can never be touched enough.” This kind of self-making, this auto-poiesis, both depends upon and mitigates against that commonality; we know, after all, that what we’re actually touching, holding, is a book of poems and pictures, a surrogate. She can never be touched enough because she can never be touched at all.
The echo, hardly deliberate but real enough, is of the Biblical Noli me tangere, “Touch me not,” which the unascended Jesus says to Mary Magdelene (John 20:17), caught in a post-Easter hiatus between flesh and light, humanity and transcendence. In The Space of Literature (1959), Maurice Blanchotconverts and rephrases this distancing imperative, a metaphysical disavowal, into a figure of what constitutes literature per se, Noli me legere, “Read me not”:
La même situation peut encore se décrire ainsi l’écrivain ne lit jamais son oeuvre. Elle est, pour lui, l’illisible, un secret, en face de quoi il ne demeure pas. Un secret, parce qu’il en est séparé. Cette impossibilité de lire n’est pas cependant un mouvement purement négatif, elle est plutôt la seule approche réelle que l’auteur puisse avoir de ce que nous appelons oeuvre. L’abrupt Noli me legere fait surgir, là où il n’y a encore qu’un livre, déjà l’horizon d’une puissance autre. Expérience fuyante, quoique immédiate. Ce n’est pas la force d’un interdit, c’est, à travers le jeu et le sens des mots, l’affirmation insistante, rude et poignante que ce qui est là, dans la présence globale d’un texte définitif, se refuse cependant, est le vide rude et mordant du refus, ou bien exclut, avec l’autorité de l’indifférence, celui qui, l’ayant écrit, veut encore le ressaisir à neuf par la lecture. L’impossibilité de lire est cette découverte que maintenant, dans l’espace ouvert par la création, il n’y a plus de place pour la création — et, pour l’écrivain, pas d’autre possibilité que d’écrire toujours cette oeuvre.
Pardon the long quotation, but what Blanchot is getting at is pretty close, I think, to what Suzanne Somers manages to articulate, in a more popularly pitched and less obviously “literary” text, as the stuff of poetry, of her poetry: the paradox of touch, which Blanchot characterizes as an impossibility of and within reading itself, a kind of persistent secret, the remains of a refusal to be remaindered, to demeure: a fleeting horizon of experience, however immediate and however publically private it might appear.