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Decomposing Robert


with an afterword by W. N. Herbert

Isbn 9782919582334 – June 2023 – 110 pages – 15 € / £14

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

Decomposing Robert is a poem seeking the cosmic in the particular, a poem attending to the death of a relationship through its exploration of alterity both as principal subject and as a method of reflecting upon the poet’s own means and materials, his disposition of materiality, his own blockages and limits. This experience is channelled through his reading, projection onto and framing of the dynamics of a relationship between a poet-couple – Robert and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning. More specifically, it is fascinated by the dynamic of power, one in which Robert’s adulation of Elizabeth takes the form of the assertion of lack within himself, how he admires Elizabeth’s access to the pure poetic spirit of the lyric where he feels himself to need the security of writing about others. (...)

Decomposing Robert is a poetry surging with the energy of personal quest, upended continually into flights and leaps, or falling down holes of its own making; set upon its feet again by the constraints of its meditative ‘turns’ upon language, love, self, and using the stages of decay as mere impulse towards structure which nonetheless dissolves itself in the utterance. It is an extraordinary work -- a striking example of poetry as a processual paradigm of performance. Yet even this belies the magisterial skill required of its creator in marshalling it into an ever-morphing, singing and ultimately disappearing body. What marks it out, is its eagerness to hold-with and enfold, to enact a kind of sympoiesis with the most difficult materials, of estrangement and mortality, and in so doing, to testify to the value of poetry as a mode of material thinking, in which the process of channelling and shaping becomes, in turn, the experience of being newly shaped.

Stephen Sunderland, Litter Magazine, Dec. 2023

to read the full essay :



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


David Spittle is a poet, filmmaker and essayist. Following his pamphlet, B O X (HVTN, 2018), Spittle published two poetry collections, All Particles and Waves (Black Herald Press, 2020) and Rubbles (Broken Sleep Books, 2022). He runs an ongoing series of interviews with filmmakers talking-about-poetry and poets talking-about-film: 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. 

by the same author

All particles and Waves (Black Herald Press, 2020)

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