D A V I D S P I T T L E
On Decomposing Robert: A Poetics of Decay
(it is the way of words
to leave yet
to breed in
in the immaculate
space of decay
I was genuinely obsessed, or maybe enchanted, by the concept of decay. It seemed a process wrongly attributed to death, to be instead reimagined as a flux and exchange far more belonging to life and its fertility than of any endings.
Although these ideas have existed throughout time, in different cultures and contexts, they seemed repressively exempt from my own life. I saw and felt this in art (often music and film) and began to think about it through lived experiences. It became part of how I tried to understand difficulties in a long-term relationship, trying to re-encounter disintegrations of communication as part of the flux of a new possibility.
For poetry, decay became a methodology, a metaphor, and an experience that moved my writing through a ‘rot-renewal’ of poetics invested in the vitality of decomposition. All of which was pleasingly distracting but really, when the flesh and chemistry of existence are breaking down (as any living entails) to be thinking and writing around or to or from the matter, is not be in or of that matter—and its decay. The changing of how to live and love together, its experience—how it moved, how it started to fall from us; my expression and understandings, chased through language, will always fall short. The body is elsewhere.
If language is approached as the representational vehicle through which to reach an expression of decay, that vehicle itself will soon decay, moving further from its subject. Ironically it is this failure to reach the subject that begins to enact the subject. The decay of my expression of decay could maybe become its success, as decay.
I was committed to seeing decay in positive terms and thought that the difficulty of falling apart could be re-configured as a creative passage of transition. I thought that maybe it was a way to salvage what felt like an ending from having to end. It became a way, in joy and in doubt and in sadness, and without the clarity of distinction those words suggest, to articulate how someone is perceived and remembered through love.
The poem was partly inspired by watching Bill Morrisons’ film Decasia (2001).
The poem was not inspired by Jörg Buttgereit’s film Nekromantik (1987).
The poem was also a way to re-read Robert and Elizabeth Browning’s poetry, specifically Robert’s Men and Women (1855). I remember my only, limited, encounters with Robert Browning’s poetry had been through the beige analysis of GCSE reading, from which I could only remember ‘My Last Duchess’, and of which I could only remember that I found it dull. Years later, I ended up teaching Robert Browning’s poem, ‘Two in the Campagna’. I was shocked into realising just how gloriously strange his writing was, a bizarre and textural strangeness that unsurprisingly the exam-driven school encounters had buried. In ‘Two in the Campagna’: thoughts are ‘turns of thread the spiders throw’; there is ‘yellowing fennel’ and ‘floating weft’ and there are teeming beetles that attend a ‘honey-meal’ while love becomes a confusion of selves.
Love becomes a desire to be, or inhabit, the other; all the while ruins of ‘Rome’s ghost’ loom with haunted dereliction in the background. Losing time, surrounded by ‘feathery grasses’, to be lost in the ‘miracles performed in play’ and yet, throughout, there is always how it (a changing ‘it’ of love) falls from reach, from words, and from the embodied possibility its passion suggests but that language and mortality denies:
Just when I seemed about to learn!
Where is the old thread now? Off again!
The old trick! Only I discern –
Infinite passion and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.
Between beetles and philosophical melodrama, I quickly picked up two huge, second-hand and falling-apart, dark-green tomes of Robert Browning. There were still tedious aspects to his work but the more I read the more inspired and obliviously esoteric they seemed. There is a kind of refreshing and even affectionate generosity within his writing, never presuming the reader will not be educated in exact parallel to his own encyclopedic particularities; never anticipating just how confused a reader might be. Sometimes it feels like a kind of admirable naivety that disconnected him, at times, from the audiences he was courting (especially in his ill-fated forays in theatre); it seems he was so thoroughly immersed in his own personal library, and so ensconced by the digressing imagination it cultivated, that other realities (and different reading habits) were too remote to be apprehended.
His poems are so many elbows in a forgotten library, all abstruse allusions and odd angles; each tangential thread a home-schooled historian, happily lost in the rubble of accumulated knowledge. On re-reading, these poems become eccentric labyrinths that have no conception of quite how strange their twists and turns have become. However, for the most part—unlike Sordello (1840) or The Ring and The Book (1868)—Men and Women has a comparable lyric clarity . . . though there are still weird thickets and dusty inroads . . . the clarity is relative, which is fair to life.
In the midst of a relationship that could not be rescued, least of all by my entropic enthusiasm, I began to imagine a long poem or sequence that would follow the main stages of a human body’s decay: with rigor mortis, autolysis, putrefaction, bloating, purging and, in the aftermath of the aftermath, the chemical trace of a body that remains in the environment within which it has decayed. These stages could act as the misleadingly fixed chapters within the motion of a body’s change re-staged as a poem’s change.
To then find, in mutable collapse, how life falls from the body. How life is in the falling away of life. A point from which I could turn to poetry, to enact and explore the falling of meaning through language. The experience of articulation (rather than the articulation of experience) that allows poetry to PLAY in the space where language falls short. And in that PLAY/DECAY, the simultaneity and reversibility of states of meaning and attention.
A movement towards, from, and of, intuition, of what begins to illuminate what always is—on a cellular and atomic level and, beyond that, in the movements that escape detection.
Alongside the letters between Robert and Elizabeth and a brief conjuring of Elizabeth’s Aurora Leigh (1856), the poems that Decomposing Robert approaches most explicitly are: ‘The Statue and the Bust’ (in ‘Autolysis’); ‘Love Among the Ruins’ (in ‘Putrefaction’); and finally, ‘Two in the Campagna’ and ‘In a Year’ (in ‘Trace’). Scatterings from other poems from Men and Women appear throughout the book. More contemporary visitations within the poem arrive through the appearance of Agent Dale Cooper from the return of Twin Peaks (2017), a hologram of Elvis Presley from the remake of Blade Runner (2017) and the trudging mud of Krasznahorkai’s Santango (1985) reimagined by the filmmaker Béla Tar (1994) and translated by George Szirtes (2013). These visitations join myself and the Brownings while walking inside the bloating corpse of Robert—
and what falls away from, or beyond.
All of these visitations impart the repetition and return of time, as displaced by and experienced in time. This was a disorientation that I felt characterized much of how I was feeling while writing the book, nearing the end of a long-term relationship and trying to imagine a future through or beyond versions of a shared past.
David Spittle is a poet, filmmaker and essayist. Following his pamphlet, BOX (HVTN, 2018), Spittle has published four poetry collections: How Eyes Rest (HVTN, forthcoming), Decomposing Robert (Back Herald Press, 2023), Rubbles (Broken Sleep Books, 2022), and All Particles and Waves (Black Herald Press, 2020). He runs an ongoing series of interviews with filmmakers talking-about-poetry and poets talking-about-film and the first volume, Light Glyphs (Broken Sleep Books, 2021), includes interviews with John Ashbery, Guy Maddin, Andrew Kötting, Iain Sinclair, So Mayer, Lisa Samuels and many others. Spittle's films have screened in festivals and been broadcast on the BBC and, alongside filmmaking, his film criticism has appeared in Sight & Sound and as part of select Blu-ray releases. He continues independent research across film and philosophy.