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Decomposing Robert by David Spittle

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In this long poem, David Spittle seeks to mirror the decomposition of the human body with the decomposition and syntactical entropy of language itself, in the same way Wittgenstein’s early philosophy attempted to mirror the structure of reality with the structure of language. Interspersing fragments from Robert Browning’s own poetry into his own and seemingly interweaving his visions with those of the Victorian poet, Spittle ingeniously exhumes not just the meaning of Browning’s own life and writing, but also the remains of that life’s meaning for us today – poetry helping record, like an involuntary seismograph, the thoughts and actions of any one life on earth. Thus, the poet tackles the problem of how a human lifespan can be both mentally and linguistically deconstructed within the very body that housed that existence in the first place.

as though dissolving mortar to gurn brick,

inviting selective disappearance

that finds again what it was that ‘a recording chief inquisitor’ felt

to really matter,

what it was in ‘his old coat and up to his knees in mud’ that stirred him:

a drive to decay; to inhale fumes

as they are freed, ghosting from a body, and to see

each discolouration,

each concession to what cannot be stopped but can be greeted,

in / as

a flourish of that decomposing body, to play out its creation

in the unintended,

& to reawaken – like the gaseous cousin of a long-buried sibling –


climbing on the limbs of others

Rub all out! well, well, there’s my life

not living unless living is the undead play of always dying

in the scrabbling breath of pretending otherwise

to be in that urgent play

is to be only in the decay of being

"Text emerges from text; text devours text; dust dines on lust; the corpses of bookworm swill; the dead centipedes invent new punctuation. ‘The work: remains.’ The glorious truth this circles around is that the only recording of Browning is of Browning forgetting his own poem. As the text breaks down, there are shades of Michael McClure reading to the lions, except the lions appear to be on the other side of the bars, dressed as condottiere in half armour (…) while its protagonists lack a pulse, the verse itself has one that is indeed audible above and beyond the meter."

W. N. Herbert



"Written like an ecopoetic response to the Victorian memento mori: Spittle is reminding us that we must only be willing to look, to continue looking past our squeamish limitations to find grief and grandeur in nature."

Julia Rose Lewis



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