Zero Chill: A review of Charlotte Seley’s The World is My Rival
by Rachel Mindell
Charlotte Seley’s first poetry collection, The World is My Rival, is bold and bodacious. It is ninety-four pages of mind-bending, angst-ridden, love-lost, witchy epic melancholy flecked with pleasure and flambéed by wit. Playful, surreal, dangerous, dramatic. It is, to borrow a phrase, the whole shebang.
Seley’s book takes much inspiration, and its title, from A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes. Part of the following quote is the epigraph for The World is My Rival, taken from Barthes’ fragment “The Orange,” on jealousy:
“The world is full of indiscreet neighbors with whom I must share the other. The world is in fact just that: an obligation to share. The world (the worldly) is my rival. I am continually disturbed by intruders… Everyone is irksome.”
The World is My Rival revolves greatly around the lover’s relationship, in all its variations of ripeness and decay. Rivals abound—fruit, geography, other women. From the title poem:
“I’ve lived many lives you said
a palimpsest I keep trying to claw off every layer
You belong to me as well the world says
I am jealous of the states
you live in the orange slices you share
the worlds we don’t have the multitudinous parts (23)”
In addition to the intimate relationships throughout the book, I found myself intrigued by the speaker’s own rivalry with self. Well, not at first. It was only after discovering that Barthes uses Gerthe characters for his stand-ins throughout A Lover’s Discourse: the lover/himself (Werthe) and the beloved/the other (Charlotte). What if the world is a rival not only for the poet’s lover but also Charlotte’s rival for Charlotte Seley?
This is a collection marked by divisions—poems are fragmented in form and full of references to breakage and holes. The speaker is divided between the declarative, fiery intelligence (endless) and bravado (delicious) that sparks off her language and the anxiety that holds her reflective, reflexive.
“…I built this persona
a curated dilemma person to toe the tides but inside I hide
ten thousand tiny tridents ready to pierce upward” (24)
Whereas so much schooling taught poems to fear the “I,” Seeley willfully refuses to forgo it. Thank goodness. Her speaker is unafraid to prod at their own complexity.
“What am I ever doing
other than rewriting the story of myself?
Rewriting and rejecting
the multitudes” (38).
I blame the world for keeping Charlotte from Charlotte. From “No Chill Is My Given Name,”
“...if I don’t keep moving my anxiety will literally
swallow me. If I stop I won’t stop at all I’m not chill
I feel shame about everything fear of the Ouija board
and oversharing needing more napkins at lunch
period chatter & bloated…
beat myself up and blog about it searchable sadness
simmering in a machine” (70).
The world of The World is My Rival is tech-dominated, kind of absurd, and doomed, ie. pretty accurately depicted. It’s mundane but also enchanting, especially the ocean where the book begins. In the opening poem, Seeley writes “The second I scream underwater, / I care less about the wreck. / Constellations of bubbles erupt water and the alphabet / breaks into cameos (7).” And in “All the Flotsam and Jetsam of a Hairdo:” “If you study the pattern, my oceanographer, / then I’ll manage the wreckage” (14).
Onward from water, we encounter the grit of city (“the city is in a coma” (33)), shifting landscapes, and the deeper domestic space, with insistent windows and curtains. The poems shape-shift, as does their speaker. She is made of matadors, swords, sequins, slamming stones. There is a spider inside her, she is kept in a whale for too long. She is a scab-picker, a clumsy puppy, a crockpot, a creaking door. Her body is the temple of No Thanks. In a dream, she is every supermarket. The speaker’s identity is fluid like the water and as peopled as many urban areas.
And while this collection is wildly funny (see “Beard Island, Population: 1”), marked by coy surprise, questions, interjections, and hypotheses, The World is My Rival is also deeply sad.
Earth is aching: “What if / our planet is actually nothing / but a hollow? A global wound. / Natural and devious. A mass dislodged, / forlorn in space” (51). People are shams: “Our bodies are beautiful / webs. An elaborate doily with oblong and futile holes” (37).
And love can be so dismantling, so betraying: “The hole grief / leaves and the impulse to push the edges back, cover / the loss. At first I joke that I grieve in reverse, that I am so / accepting, and my acceptance is denial. I am a collage / of the grieving process” (88).
How to exist beside and inside it all? The only solution I see is to straddle the gaps, as multiple as we can possibly be.
“I am a woman who cannot be saved
or rather I dream of regeneration constantly—the mirror,
magnification and the magic.” (56)
I’ll admit, I don’t know the Magnetic Fields well. But I listened to the 1999 three-disc album 69 Loves Songs, the other guiding light for Seley’s collection, while writing this. It’s fantastic. In a Paste article ranking all 69 songs, Beverly Bryan calls the album “a staggering achievement, a cultural landmark, a monument to romantic, yet urbane misery… At once theatrical and literary, it’s a dazzling kaleidoscope of pop and Americana… songs that worship, mock and interrogate love by turns.”
Bryan could easily be describing The World is My Rival. Just as with each of Seeley’s poems—wherein where we enter is remarkably distinct from where we exit, spell-like—the experience of reading this book and returning to this book, is kaleidoscopic, is a long strange lovely psychedelic catastrophic excursion. It may well fuck you up.
About Charlotte Seley
Charlotte Seley is a writer and poet from the Hudson Valley region of New York, currently residing in Kansas City. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College and her BA with a concentration in Creative Writing from Eugene Lang College of the New School for Liberal Arts. Her first collection of poetry, The World is My Rival, is forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil Press.
She served as the Editor-in-Chief and Poetry Editor of Redivider, and read poetry for Ploughshares, including their Emerging Writers Contest. She also used to manage the digital media and communications for the monthly reading series Mr. Hip Presents, located in Jamaica Plain, MA.
About Rachel Mindell
Rachel Mindell is the author of two chapbooks: Like a Teardrop and a Bullet (Dancing Girl Press) and rib and instep: honey (above/ground). Individual poems have appeared (or will) in Denver Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, Foglifter, BOAAT, Forklift, Ohio, The Journal, and elsewhere. She works for Submittable and the University of Arizona Poetry Center.