Philip Gross – Phlogiston


Philip Gross


How does fire do it – prop
the ladder of itself against the air,
then climb it?
I must study this, in passing.


A thin
twig in the embers
flexes, as if waking.
It fills from the inside
as with sap, with the burning.
You could almost believe it: Fire
is a kind of life; life is a kind of fire.


We call it hungry, call it
wild – what swings
from branch to branch tip of the spitting
or drops
on all fours in the brushwood
snuffling up the in-draught of a hunger –
The drunk kids scatter, shrieking with half-laughter.
No stopping it now
or them ever
or us,
sucked in, consumed too, though we call it


No wonder we talk about playing
hose-jets on the conflagration.
and water recognise each other
from way back, a shared childhood.
Is this dancing?
See them rush into each other’s arms.


They were bombing the sea.
I saw this, as a boy –
off Land’s End – low above our hollow hip-hoo-
rays, strike after strike:
Buccaneers, Hunter Harriers, Sea Vixens, (yes,
I could name them). The broke-
back tanker smeeched; the slick spread; fire too
can be unwilling to be pressed…


… just as forty years later, slow
bellies of smoke
dragging over the hills: the foot-and-mouth
pyres sluggish. Lost
up a backroad home,
we glimpsed a slick
of slack flame across the valley,
goaded by a line of silhouettes
in armour, their flamethrowers
out at it like cattle prods.
Trucks with tarpaulined payloads
thumped past up the lane;
We slewed to the verge. Don’t
look, we told the children,
then we couldn’t (could we?)
tear our gaze away.


Fire is in the past tense

when the bright flags break out
like a victory parade
The flame is already an after.
Blindfold, in the unmarked cell
or cellar, history, the deed

of fire is already done.


Buddha’s sermon
spoke about a house on fire.
Fire’s own homily runs on this
one thing: its escape
from the house of the earth.


The flames
are doors
thrown open, the guests
spilling out already
with their heedless laughter
from the banquet, filled
and never
fulfilled, where the carriages
are waiting, black
coach horses stamping;
then, clattering,
their far
spark deepening
the night.


Just as the paper gives in to weightless
dissolution, see the ink’s
fusewire-thin tangle hanging
in the blaze, intact,
as if her parting
message had been written on the flame.


counts in minutes
– carbon,


In the end these
tongues I trust
will speak me
Nothing lost in the translation.