Review by Mieke Marple
Coupling her poetic verse with iPhone photos and screenshots from dating websites, Benedetto plots an emotionally complex crescendo vérité in This book owns no one This book owes no one. With her iPhone realism, Benedetto straddles the line between critical distance and emotional seduction to arrive at a final heartbreak, which (to use Benedetto’s words) might otherwise be called “a human screw.”
The book begins with the phrase “this book owes no one.” Drawn from the first half-of the ambiguous title, its concern with power dynamics is forefront. This book owns no one This book owes no one suggests this volume is neither in debt to nor holding debt over another person. Yet, its faultless position only emphasizes people’s penchant to falter between dominance and submissiveness. A book is just a book, but people are emotional whips and whipping boards, projecting their personal baggage onto others, their avatars, and even their books.
We see the human capacity for violence reflected in the book’s second page depicting a pixelated boxer clocking another. On the bottom right hand corner of the image the logo for the dating site OKCupid appears, equally pixelated. Questions erupt from this unlikely coupling. Was this image on someone’s OKCupid profile and what was he (assuming it is he) trying to convey? Does he like physical violence, dominance, victory? Is he projecting these desires consciously or unconsciously? Or might this image be more knowing? Perhaps it is from a woman’s profile, Benedetto’s even? Maybe it is a metaphor, a visual poem, floating inconspicuously in the imagerrehea that constitutes OKCupid. Here begins the spiral into the lush, dirty, and banal world of Benedetto’s This book owns no one This book owes no one.
This introductory image is followed by a series of short passages paired with screenshots of either text message conversations or dating profiles and their taglines. Isolated from their context, most of these images are humorous in their earnest expression. One man describes himself as “out of place online as I am in a crowd,” an endearing and ironic self-summary to be sure. At the same time, these stolen conversations and profiles are unabashedly trashy, with “trash” referring more to their disposability as images than to their taste level. They are image detritus – a nominal segment of the billions of images generated everyday by social media, dating websites, and mobile technology – as quickly forgotten as the millions of written words exhausted by text messages, emails, tweets, and status updates.
Precisely because these screenshots appear to belong to the generic digital landscape, Benedetto’s typed text is blazingly present. Her written words haunt. They access your private parts (primarily your heart) and then play coy or confused. In Benedetto’s verses a genuine vulnerability is communicated with a combination of frustration, self-deprecation, and confidence. One of my favorite lines reads, “he ended things by saying things like, you are undatable and no one healthy will want you. He said this, mouth full of gym colored sand.” For a brief moment Benedetto’s critical juxtapositions are forgotten as I, the reader, wade in the emotional resonance of these words.
Halfway through the book, images of Benedetto appear in the appropriated screenshots and iPhone images. Now there is a face, an age, a body and hair type the reader can associate with these written verses. This act also allows Benedetto to align herself with the online daters whose images and text messages she poaches. However, Benedetto remains firmly positioned in the camp of the informed as someone aware of her own disposability as image (or person, even). We cannot assume the same for the men profiled in This book owns no one This book owes no one, which places Benedetto at a distinct advantage. Yet, this critical awareness does not make her disposability any less real and I am left with a general feeling of melancholy for how can the reader not apply the same logical extension to him or herself?
As the book bottoms out we are greeted with a final helping of humiliation and humor. Textual murmurings about marriage “Mary marry me” are followed by back to back pages of male profiles, rated and ranked, which could be seen as an oblique suggestion that, for even the most enlightened beings, what it all comes down to is the size of your wedding ring or penis. Status, sex, competition, humiliation. Feeling good. Feeling bad. These are eternal themes.The final image in the book is of a dwarf pony in a doghouse, a comical and seemingly innocent vision. But this pony is a sad animal, the butt of a joke for which the poor beast is not even aware. The pony suffers from a humiliation only an unknowing animal can withstand—except that joke must inevitably be reflected back upon us. Whether you use metaphor or mirroring, it is clear that a dwarf pony in a doghouse is a greater reflection of the human condition than that of any animal. We can only walk the line of existential awareness for so long before laughter or tears bring us reeling back to our general myopia.
Cara Benedetto, This book owns no one This book owes no one, (Self-published, 2013)
Images: Cover and interior of This book owns no one This book owes no one.