Poetry — August 19, 2012 13:43 — 2 Comments

Phlogiston – Dennis Caswell

People walk down the street in flames,
some of them flickering merrily
like the heads of Swedish girls, some of them
being consumed like blazing monks,
but all of them hoping for wind enough
to spread their flames to someone else. A couple
sits in a bright red restaurant booth,
smoke curling out of their ears. They’re thinking
of how they’ll climb into bed and blow each other
alight. Preachers fire up their congregations,
who throw themselves like logs on the holy hearth,
which seems somehow to complement
the ancient English belief that the forces of darkness
are summoned to work one’s will by the screams
of roasting cats. Fitness nazis will tell you
you’re most alive when you can feel the burn.
Maybe that’s because there’s no such thing
as unburning. To watch a flame is to witness
the irreversible pouring forth
of that weird untouchable essence that can’t be
stuffed back in once it’s out. In the 1700’s,
they called it phlogiston and believed
that the blackened calx it left behind
was a flammable object’s truest, purest form,
which sounds about as ridiculous
as trying to tell my kids what’s burning
away from me, a little bit more each day,
and what they’ll be left with after it’s gone.


Dennis Caswell lives outside Woodinville, Washington and works as a software engineer in the aviation industry.  Before that, he designed and programmed computer games and educational software.  His work has appeared in Floating Bridge Review, Crab Creek Review, Burnside Review, Monkey Puzzle, Vain, and assorted other journals and anthologies.  Phlogiston is the title poem from his first full-length collection, to be published this fall by Floating Bridge Press.


  1. loved this poem- provocative title- wonder how poet came across this word. I find it fascinating to find something new when i’m looking up something else. I am addicted to the internet and I would imagaine that is how this word appeared.

  2. Jed Myers says:

    Dynamite poem!
    Pun intended.

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What am I?

Bioluminescent eye
That sees by the shine
Of its own light. Lies

Blind me. I am the seventh human sense
And my stepchild,

Scientists can't find me.

Januswise I make us men;
Was my image then—

Remind me:

The awful fall up off all fours
From the forest
To the hours…

Tick, Tock: Divine me.

-- Richard Kenney