Today's poem is by Nicky Beer

Phlogiston Footage

The lights dim. We creak in our seats.

A diver shadows the bottom of the Aegean Sea

like a ponderous yellow-footed heron

trailing a champagne wake.

Mycenaean amphorae thrust their necks

from the ashen sand, all rounding

their lips to the same vowel shape

as he plunges his glove down their gullets.

We see his fist opening rubber petals

to the camera, revealing another fist slowly

loosening itself to a walnut-sized octopus.

Nacreous and opaline, pied, rubicund,

its eyes are damn near half of it,

a livid doodle in his black hand.

Now comes the calm intervention

of the voiceover—baritone, gently professorial,

just a touch embarrassed by the excess

of its knowledge:

One of the more unusual denizens of the coastal-Mediterranean waters is the phlo-
giston, commonly known o marine biologists as
Octopus phlogistonus. While
certainly no rival to the Giant Pacific Octopus in size, nor anywhere nearly as dan-
gerous as the venomous Blue-Ringed Octopus, the phlogiston nevertheless possesses
a certain attribute which for the longest time could only be described as magical.

The camera tilts down into one

of those ancient clay mouths. We gaze

into shadow for a beat longer than

seems necessary. Then: A flaw

in the underwater celluloid. A flirt

of acid on the film. A morsel of dust smuggled

into the spool. A prank of chartreuse stipples

the black, casts a fragment of ghoul-light

on tentacles scrolled backwards. Wait a moment.

Watch again. The animal takes

small bites of the darkness, releasing crumbs

of green light into the water, dozens

of sparks leaping and guttering from its underside

with mayfly brevity.

Apocryphal evidence indicates one American soldier fortunate enough to catch sight
of the phlogiston while stationed in Naples during World War II dubbed the crea-
The Little Zippo—

There's no crashing grandeur here—it's the private

self-sufficiency of the animal's gesture that charms us

like a lonely whistle overhead in an empty street.

And yet, drifting in its earthenware cul-de-sac,

this diminutive marine Prometheus

could not be more dull to itself:

... was discovered to be thousands of bioluminescent microorganisms inhabiting
the keratin of the phlogiston's beak. The octopus scrapes the top and bottom halves
of his beak together to rid himself of the surplus buildup. This agitates the par-
asites, which emit a faint greenish glow as they're released into the water. The
"magic act" the octopus performs is, in fact, nothing more than a bit of absent-
minded grooming.

Which of our own human wonders may be little

more than chemical whiff,

an odd kink in the genetic helix?

The thought's enough to make us shut

our eyes, pull our ignorance a little closer,

embrace it like a mildewed doll—

dented forehead, chipped-paint stare and all.

But we're still drawn to these tenebrous theaters,

lulled by the tidewhir of the projector, detaching

our terrestrial ballast as our lungs relax to airless anemones.

Perhaps the light ruptures the darkness

so that we may better know the darkness

in the palm of our own hand.

Now they're looping a scene in night vision chartreuse,

the sparks first swarming the tentacles like spermatozoa,

then rushing the lens, spawning

with the clouds of dust in the camera's beam,

silently trickling into our laps. Look

how our hands become strange

speckled cephalopods when we try to brush them away,

the knuckles arched with primal alarm, poised to flee,

to live out their own mysteries beyond our sight.

The motor shudders. We whiff cordite.

A single celluloid tentacle whips

into the air, puddles to a glossy slither.

What remains unknown—.

                                              Note: The phlogiston is an invented animal.

Copyright © 2013 Nicky Beer All rights reserved
from Pleiades
Reprinted by Verse Daily® with permission

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