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Heaven As Nothing but Distance

Read by Sandy Longhorn

Maybe it was enough to believe the Zodiac’s blazing entirety
would be cast from the sky, an effortless handful of salt

scattered to the Kansas plains’ red wheat. Out West,
souls every day were shedding their Earthly inheritance—the refused

histories of cause and effect, blight, hunger with a trace
of Santa Fe Railway coal dusting grocers’ displays—

and my grandfather, too, who, having left Topeka
for Los Angeles’s early sprawl, exits the train station’s dim

into day’s white flash, takes one step onto his upturned
apple crate, a new Bible in his palm, and he begins

to explain why all things are fire, what it is that makes you ache
awake, and why this must be so. Once, on a gritty

city beach in California—flies, stinking strands of kelp
rotting, Styrofoam—he and I sat watching a gull choir

first eyeball, then swoop, then peck, almost in unison,
something tangled in a blue tarp washed-in above the tide-pull.

A drowning victim, maybe. A vagrant. And though unable
to see what was there, when he put his hand in mine

I could not have even counted all the things I wished
to believe in, and which would still be true if what I remembered

was the sound of the waves landing, but now there is only the lungless
hot breath of L.A. on my cheek, the cries of gulls,

their wings ruffling into flight. The night after his memorial,
someone dug a hole into Kansas silt loam, dropped

into it the plastic baggie with his ashen remains.
Nothing then but distance in every direction. Above us, a satellite’s

beacon begged the horizon for home, the heavens’ scales
measured the darkness, and that’s all.

Joshua Robbins has recent work published or forthcoming in Best New Poets, Verse Daily, Third Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. He won the 2008 James Wright Poetry Award, and recently received a Pushcart Prize nomination. Robbins is a PhD student in English at the University of Tennessee, where he teaches poetry writing and English composition, and serves as Poetry Editor for the journal Grist. He blogs at Little Epic Against Oblivion.