Bound for Heaven: A Note on the Poem
Robert Duncan wrote “Bound for Heaven” in the early winter of 1961. For the last fifty years or so the poem has lived quietly between the covers of a small book in the library of Ronald Johnson. Wave Composition has the great privilege of publishing this work for the first time.
Thanks must go to Mary Margaret Sloan and Christopher Wagstaff of the Jess Collins Trust for their kind permission to print the poem here, to every member of the outstanding team of staff at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, and to the Leverhulme Trust, who funded my travel to the United States.
We owe special debts to Elspeth Healey, who first introduced me to the poem, Kathy Lafferty, who provided us with an image from the archive, and to Mary Margaret Sloan who has transcribed this piece so carefully for us. A brief postscript explaining where “Bound for Heaven” came from follows the poem.
-Angus Brown, 2017
Bound for Heaven
destined ? wrapt round?
He gave his word, gave it
over and now
gave the Word domaine
over the real of all things
the word Son breaking fiery out of
bounds of the Sun
advanced a fiction of Light
immortal, and sweet Night
ground, thrown down under the
veil of stars spreading
But the actual sun, il Sol, soleil
circa Nov 1, 1964
“Bound for Heaven” by Robert Duncan © 2017, The Jess Collins Trust, reproduced with permission.
Postscript: Holograph Book
In November last year I was at the University of Kansas to do some work on the poet and food writer Ronald Johnson. Every day, for six days, I walked from a motel to the library just after sunrise and back again just before sunset. The cold blue skies didn’t break all week.
I was in Lawrence to find out how Johnson turned a copy of Paradise Lost into his 1977 erasure poem Radi Os. After a few days Elspeth Healey, the special collections librarian, recommended taking a look at something she called the Autograph Book. When I took the book to my desk, I realised I hadn’t heard her properly. Bound in the softest blue leather, printed primly with gilt letters and borders, the book in front of me read:
Some serious hands have held Holograph Book. There are poems, pictures, and messages from Mina Loy, Ezra Pound, Basil Bunting, William S. Burroughs, Robert Lowell, Herbert Read, Stevie Smith, R. S. Thomas, Denise Levertov, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Edwin Morgan, Hugh MacDiarmid, John Rechy, Mervyn Peake, Robert Creeley, Joel Oppenheimer, Gary Snyder, Guy Davenport, Charles Olson, and, of course, Robert Duncan. Writing in the 1960s, almost everybody has left their name with a scrap of published poem, a fragment of sheet music, or a drawing. There are two exceptions. The first is Ezra Pound’s contribution: the quavering initials ‘E. P’ are small and skewed on an otherwise empty page. The second is ‘Bound for Heaven’ by Robert Duncan, carefully drafted in a Blakeian wreath.
By the time I sat down to squint at Duncan’s unpublished poem, I’d spent a few days getting used to the idea of Ronald Johnson as a noticeably sociable poet. His work in the 80s and 90s towards the long poem ARK still bears the marks of comfort and companionship. Written during the AIDS emergency, as Johnson absorbed astonishing losses, his drafts are still grimed with dark wine and gravy. Holograph Book is different. Pristine, it reads like a time capsule from better days, from Johnson’s trips to England and around America with Jonathan Williams. They were very close then. Holograph Book feels like a record of happy and starry evenings.
I hope it’s clear that this was not an archival discovery that I want to claim for my own. I didn’t find this poem blowing the dust from a pile of papers in an empty reading room. The story of finding this poem and bringing it to publication is far more sociable and convivial than that. The discovery and excavation of ‘Bound for Heaven’ owes a great deal to a great many people. In this, I imagine, the publication of this poem has more than a little in common with its composition.
-Angus Brown, 2017