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Amodern 4: The Poetry Series


Jackson Mac Low Directs a Poetry Reading

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On March 26, 1971, the American poet, playwright, and composer Jackson Mac Low gave a two-hour-long, performative, intermittently collaborative reading of his work as part of a multi-year poetry series at Sir George Williams University (SGWU, now Concordia University) in the city of Montreal. In an article reconstructing the history of this series – which ran from 1966 to 1974 – Jason Camlot provides the following account of the evening:

The first 20 minutes of Mac Low’s reading consist of him playing pre-recorded poems read in other venues, sometimes reading along or in response to the played tape, and sometimes stopping, fast-forwarding, or navigating the tape reel as part of the present “reading.” The delivery of “Word Event for George Brecht” – a poem-generating scenario that takes a single word or phrase (in this instance, the phrase “anti-personnel bombs”) and runs it through a series of phonetic renderings, first successive and then randomized – is introduced by Mac Low as “a kind of poem that can be done on any words” and that was done, in the example that is played for the audience, “at a reading in New York where the Russian poet Voznesensky joined some American poets in an anti-war reading” . . . While this original occasion of performance is audible in the recording, so are subsequent ones that have been captured on tape. Mac Low listens with the audience to the build of his pre-recorded audio palimpsest of poetry events and then builds upon it further, live in the present.2

The phrase “audio palimpsest” is both suggestive and perplexing. A palimpsest is, of course, a manuscript page or a scroll which has had the ink scraped or washed off so that a new text can be inscribed; this process of erasure is often incomplete or unsuccessful, making it possible, with effort, to recover the scriptio inferior, the original text. A palimpsest is thus defined as something that one sees, not hears, and it frequently involves forgetting, supersession, and, occasionally, concealment. Mac Low is attempting something quite different. He is consciously, artfully combining live and recorded oral performances, interlacing past and present. He is not trying but failing to replace or displace one performance with another. Camlot, attempting to describe the poet’s behavior, resorts to catachresis, a strained inexact renaming, because no other, more accurate way of putting it comes to mind.

As his account proceeds, he tests more analogies, as if searching for one that might finally prove fully adequate:

Mac Low functions as a language organizer or facilitator during the subsequent pieces performed in the Poetry Series. The performance of the numbered “Asymmetries,” for which he involves a dozen or so participants from the audience (that is to say, of members of the local poetry community), along with many of the subsequent works performed that night – including [excerpts from] “Stanzas for Iris Lezak” and a poem derived from language found in Scientific American – are aptly described by Mac Low as “collages of various times and places, as well as spontaneity in this room here.”3

Organizer, facilitator, discoverer, collagiste: none of these are common ways of thinking about what a poet does during a poetry reading. In this essay, Mac Low ends up sounding more like a mid-level manager, a sound technician, an avant-garde theater director, or an adventurous curator than a writer hoping to connect with an audience sitting in front of him.


I can be high as a bluebird flies if you’d love me.


For Camlot, Mac Low’s unsettling departures from period-specific expectations about poetic performance – the “underlying conviction,” as David Antin put it in 1972, that a poet should present himself as “a man up on his feet, talking” – serve several purposes.4 First, he seeks “to challenge the idea of the poet as a privileged, unified subject,” often by encouraging people to “enact temporary, participatory communities” that last for the duration of a collaborative performance.5 Instead of striving to give his audience immediate, intimate access to his deepest thoughts and feelings, he gives them language borrowed from miscellaneous sources that can be turned into art just as readily by others as himself. He deemphasizes self-expression, in short, because he wishes to explore group dynamics.

Second, he works “to complicate the status of the poetic work as a stable artifact” by highlighting “the multiplicity of iterations that the media of language, voice, and tape, allow.”6 The same poem, he demonstrates, can be read aloud, recited, or staged in diverse ways. Such heterogeneity makes it difficult to talk about or think about a poem as a single stable text that exists apart from its many concrete instantiations. Crucial to this lesson is his foregrounding of mediation. Selectively and dramatically using “recordings of past events” in “present performance,” he undermines the “temporal specificity of the ‘live’ event,” that is, the convention that anything a poet says or does in front of an audience stems from on-the-spot, in-the-moment decision-making. He shows, too, that one can use “audio tape as a medium of creation as well as documentation.”7 Every occurrence of playback, he suggests, is an aesthetic occasion worthy of appreciation in its own right and should not be construed as an echo or derivative re-presentation of a prior aural event. Under such circumstances, the word poem increasingly seems to refer to a series of nonrepeatable, nonidentical performances that may or may not overlap in their essentials and may or may not coincide in space and time.

Why pursue these disruptive, dispersive, and decentering strategies? The ultimate goal, Camlot asserts, is consciousness-raising. “The poem and its collective and mediated mode of performance incite an experience of cultural participation that highlights the contingency of speech acts and related forms of cultural or political action.”8 In other words, Mac Low helps audiences to understand that culture and politics are not airy abstractions – something one reads about in newspapers or observes passively from an unbreachable distance – but instead are (or should be) dynamic, participatory processes. Furthermore, these processes can take place in, be reinvented in, the here-and-now. Consonant with his life-long commitment to utopian anarchism, the poet hopes to awaken his audiences to heretofore unglimpsed, progressive “possibilities of language, self, and relationality” and to their capacity, via temporary improvisatory collaboration, to actualize these possibilities.9


The Eastern Bluebird’s most common call is a soft, low-pitched tu-a-wee with a querulous tone.


The nine and a half minutes of “The Bluebird Asymmetries” come next-to-last in the performance order in Mac Low’s 1971 reading at SGWU. The frequent repetition of “bluebird” by different voices explains the first half of the title. What about “asymmetries”? The word has a specific meaning in Mac Low’s lexicon. “Asymmetries,” he explains, “are poems of which the words, punctuation, typography, and spacing of words on the page have been determined by certain kinds of chance operations.”10 The most common kind of “chance operation” used in his asymmetries is “the acrostic-chance method”:

This involved drawing words, word strings, and in one case, syllables from current reading matter … . Usually an initial word was found in a text … and words (or strings) having its letters as their initial letters were then found by reading along in the text … . After the first line, the word or strings of which acrostically ‘spelled out’ the first word, words beginning with the second and subsequent letters of the first word were found to begin the second and subsequent lines, and these words were spelled out in those lines.11

The resulting poems are “asymmetrical” insofar as they have no repeated internal unit such as a stanza organizing the contents, and as such they remain off-balance and variable throughout. Mac Low reports that he began to write “asymmetrically” in the summer months of 1960, and over the next calendar year he composed what he refers to as the “Numbered Asymmetries,” a group of 501 poems numbered ordinally.12

“The Bluebird Asymmetries” dates from a later moment, Spring 1967, when he experimented with reviving the form. As later printed in Representative Works 1938–1985 (1986), “The Bluebird Asymmetries” consists of a series of ten poem-scores whose individual titles incorporate the specific dates on which they were completed. The first five, we learn, were composed on May 6, 1967, the sixth on May 7, and the rest on May 8. The initial voice to speak in the 1971 SGWU recording of “Bluebird Asymmetries” apparently reads from “7th Bluebird Asymmetry – 8 May 1967”:

Bluebirds were probably more common/nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn/in the cities at one time than they are/ahrrrrrrrrr/now.

bluebirds for the right to/Uwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww/birds returned from the/uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh/South13

Mac Low appends several explanatory notes to these ten one-page poem-scores, namely, an overview of the “phonemic notation” he has used; instructions regarding “performance parameters” such as duration, speed, loudness, and pitch; guidelines regarding “ways of performing” the poems depending on whether one reads them solo or in groups of different sizes; and information regarding the “sources of these Asymmetries.”14

Since the publication of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems (1922), Anglophone readers of poetry have grown accustomed to the idea that a poem, especially an unconventional or obscure one, might be followed by endnotes or other scholarly apparatus. Mac Low’s specification of his sources is, therefore, not terribly unusual:

The words of the 1st five “Bluebird Asymmetries” were drawn by chance operations from Bird Portraits in Color, text by Thomas S. Roberts, M.D.D.Sc. (U of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1934, 1940); text opp. Plate 59; “THRUSHES (Family Turdidae),” painted by Allan Brooks in 1930. Those of the last five were drawn from the Audubon Nature Encyclopedia, Vol. 2 (BI-CA), article: “BLUEBIRD,” pp. 283–5 (National Audubon Society, Curtis Publishing Co., Philadelphia, New York, 1964, 1965).15

Less usual, however, are Mac Low’s extensive remarks regarding how people should stage the poems, so too his insistence that they adopt the proper attitude toward the occasion:

Besides being read solo, “The Bluebird Asymmetries” may be performed by five people reading, first, the 1st thru the 5th, simultaneously, & then, the 6th thru the 10th. However, larger groups may perform as many as all 10 simultaneously, & any number may read any number of them simultaneously &/or successively, as long as each of the 10 is read at least once during a performance.


It is of utmost importance that each reader listen very attentively to all sounds produced by himself & the other readers, as well as to environing sounds (audience, street, &c.) All aspects of performance must be sensitively adjusted by the reader in accord with his perceptions of the total sound. Thus one may prolong a silence, tone, or phoneme, or speak louder or softer, faster or slower, as one feels these actions will contribute most positively to the total sound.16

Mac Low’s rhetoric here, it should be noted, is somewhat self-contradictory. On the one hand, he stresses permission and choice (“may be performed,” “may perform,” “may read,” “may prolong,” “speaker louder or softer, faster or slower”). On the other hand, he peremptorily issues orders (“as long as each … is read,” “it is of utmost important that each reader listen very attentively,” “aspects of performance must be … . adjusted”). Individuals are granted latitude to make their own decisions, but those decisions, it seems, can only be made within strict boundaries, and they must be made in service to a single overarching goal, the creation of what Mac Low calls “total sound.” Collaboration, in other words, is presented as a means toward an end. Moreover, that end is a special kind of performance, one that draws everything into itself. One attends to the relations between things, words, and people, indeed, must attend to them, so as to produce and sustain an immersive aural experience.


You must sing his song, as you go along, when you find the bluebird of happiness.


Responding to an essay by Jennifer Scappettone on Mac Low’s Words nd Ends from Ez (1989), Stephen Burt has concisely outlined how she and other critics have tended to approach his work. Like Camlot, they celebrate the model of “joint, unstable, or unlocatable authorship” offered by Mac Low’s poetry because they believe it produces an “anti-Fascist text.” More specifically, they contend that by creating “a text whose elements do not work together, which fails to offer semantic or formal coherence, or which seems to repudiate (or never to have had) any single implied author” he fights back against an analogy fundamental to influential modernist masterpieces such as Ezra Pound’s Cantos between a writer’s despotic “authority over some system of words, concepts, places, and things” and fascist governance, which enjoins that “all the elements (i.e., persons) in a society must work together, all the time, for a common goal under the direction of one strong leader.”17

This line of argument, according to Burt, rests on a series of dubious assumptions, namely, that a poem’s form can or should be read as analogous to social and governmental systems; that canonical high modernist texts such as Eliot’s “Waste Land” and Pound’s Cantos “from start to finish … form a semantic and aesthetic unity”; that Pound’s and other, comparably fascist-leaning poets’ work can meaningfully serve as a synecdoche for all modernism; that contemporary poetry is most valuable when it self-anoints as successor to a Pound-inflected literary tradition; and that Mac Low’s poetry is best understood oppositionally, as a disproof of and liberation from the totalitarian thinking inseparable from high modernist innovation.18 For Burt, this last proposition is particularly harmful not only because it is logically unsupportable but also because it is troublingly self-limiting, since it tends to lock critics into using “terms of description and praise” that are “negative or reactive.” Instead of encountering an affirmative case for his poetic excellence or literary-historical importance, we hear, over and over, that his work “subverts, undermines, scrambles, calls into question, cancels out” and otherwise resists or deconstructs hegemonic discourses.19

Such rampant canceling and scrambling is, yes, depicted as ultimately in the service of a progressive and constructive utopian-anarchist agenda. But, as Burt points out, the “claims” made for “derailing, subverting, undermining, exorcising,” especially by “academic critics who take their bearings from [Gertrude] Stein and from the language writers,” have long since become oddly far removed from what happens on the page or in front of an audience.20 They often rely on an intimate familiarity with previous discussions of modern, postmodern, and contemporary poetry and poetics to appreciate how this particular variety of syntactical fragmentation really truly advances the cause of human liberty, as opposed to any of the other varieties from Hugo Ball to Bruce Andrews. Uninitiated readers can have a difficult-to-impossible time following such arguments or discerning their rhetorical stakes.

To put it differently: Why should hearing about bluebirds in early spring lead anyone to jump to conclusions about “large-scale social organization, of government, society, and history,” or to imagine “emancipatory change” is in the offing?21 Perhaps it would be better to begin by asking: Why bluebirds? Why, on this particular night, ask a group of people to read aloud strange poems about bluebirds, their habits, and their preferred habitats? Could such poetic performance ever plausibly be called bluebird-like, that is, a variety of song?


Fly away bluebird, fly away for me.


Before the 1971 performance of “The Bluebird Asymmetries,” Mac Low provides a somewhat rambling backstory. He explains that “in recent years I’ve gone back to writing poems in the form of the asymmetries that I wrote in 60 and 61 but these [new ones] tended to cluster around one subject matter,” and he reports that he wrote this particular set for a “group event” on May 11, 1967, at Utica College in Upstate New York. Also involved, he recalls, were his wife Iris Lezak and the poets Carol Bergé and Emmett Williams. He then digresses, talking about another poem that debuted on that occasion, Williams’s “Cellar Song for Five Voices,” which he refers to as “a beautiful work that has bluebirds in it.” “I’d love to read it,” he says wistfully, “but it’s very long,” and he refers the audience to the text of the poem as it appears in An Anthology (1963), a volume that he co-published with La Monte Young. “I don’t have copies here but I’ll be happy to send any to anybody.”22

Mac Low goes on at such length in a half-distracted manner because he is trying to get everyone and everything prepared for the performance to follow. There are other, similar moments during the 1971 reading. He does not appear to have rehearsed the ensemble pieces with the performers beforehand, and he is clearly a little rattled at times by the consequent disorganization and the inevitable glitches with the audiovisual technologies. Indeed, just at the juncture when he finally declares that “The Bluebird Asymmetries” is ready to begin, he is again forced off script. He had been planning to accompany the live performers with a recording of a second May 1967 performance of the same piece, this one made not at Utica College but at the Manna House Workshops in East Harlem.23 When someone pushes play, however, the audiotape turns out to be cued incorrectly, to the beginning of a different piece, “Peaks & Lamas” (1958–1959). Mac Low complains, but he lets the tape keep playing until it reaches the correct start point. Trying to smooth things over, he improvises, sounding for all the world like a radio DJ: “That was a performance of ‘Peaks & Lammas’ by Jackson Mac Low, the performers were Leslie Sixton [?], Amy Spurling [?], Harvey Lesain [?], and Jackson Mac Low, May 26th, 1967, now a performance of ‘The Bluebird Asymmetries’ by the same group.”24

The long lead up to “The Bluebird Asymmetries,” while unplanned, is nonetheless quite revealing. Mac Low frames the 1971 version as a third iteration. The second performance, at Manna House, literally becomes part of the third. There may be no audible trace of the first, at Utica College, but audience members hear about it, and Mac Low makes an extended pitch to them concerning another, related poem by Emmett Williams, and he gives them precise instructions where to find that poem. Moreover, he repeatedly refers to “Cellar Poem for Five Voices” as a work that involves, well, repetition. He calls it “a permutation poem”; a poem that “does all the variations, does all the permutations of one group of things”; and a poem in which “all the possible permutations of them are written out.”25 By the time “The Bluebird Asymmetries” finally gets underway, the audience was likely feeling a bit bewildered. Was Mac Low trying to draw attention to recurrence as a formal principle and thematic preoccupation?

He was certainly betraying his own aesthetic preferences. Williams’s poem would not typically be considered “beautiful.” “Cellar Song for Five Voices” is built out of five lower-case word-strings, two of which also include a punctuation mark:

(1) somewhere

(2) bluebirds are flying

(3) high in the sky.

(4) in the cellar

(5) even blackbirds are extinct.

These elements are run through all one hundred and twenty possible arrangements according to a rule as mathematically strict as that governing a sestina. The first six lines, for instance, hold constant the opening two elements, while switching around the next three, in the following manner:

1 2 3 4 5

1 2 3 5 4

1 2 4 3 5

1 2 4 5 3

1 2 5 3 4

1 2 5 4 3

On the page, this translates into:

somewhere bluebirds are flying high in the sky. in the cellar even blackbirds are extinct.

somewhere bluebirds are flying high in the sky. even blackbirds are extinct. in the cellar

somewhere bluebirds are flying in the cellar high in the sky. even blackbirds are extinct.

somewhere bluebirds are flying in the cellar even blackbirds are extinct. high in the sky.

somewhere bluebirds are flying even blackbirds are extinct. high in the sky. in the cellar

somewhere bluebirds are flying even blackbirds are extinct. in the cellar high in the sky.26

Next, of course, come a series of six lines which begin with (1) and (3) – “Somewhere high in the sky” – while (2), (4), (5) are trotted through their paces. And so forth, until at long last one reaches the final statement, a mirror image of the poem’s opening line: “even blackbirds are extinct. in the cellar high in the sky. bluebirds are flying somewhere” (5 4 3 2 1). In An Anthology the whole of “Cellar Song for Five Voices” is printed on a fold-out page, as if to suggest that the words just keep coming, exactly as the compositional rules dictate, well past the boundaries of convention, decorum, and patience.

At SGWU Mac Low concludes his comments on Williams’s poem with a cryptic but crucial statement: “Usually we read it with five different voices, each taking the unit and once in a while, people get through it without breaking down laughing.”27 The title suggests that, yes, “five different voices” should read it aloud, and in a headnote Williams explicitly assigns each word-string (what Mac Low calls a “unit”) to a different person. But what role does Mac Low understand laughter to be playing here? Does it count as a success or a failure if the performers “get through” the poem “without breaking down laughing”? Of course, Mac Low could simply be poking fun at himself, conceding to his audience in a self-deprecating manner that process-based work can at times come off as interminable or silly. He does not, however, pause for a joke to sink in, nor does he, in fact, seem to be paying much attention at all to his audience at this moment. The preparations for “Bluebird Asymmetries” almost wholly absorb him.

The possibility of a contagious, obstructive giggle-fit during “Cellar Song for Five Voices” is nonetheless worth pausing over, because it speaks to the place of community in Mac Low’s poetics. If the goal in performing a poem is micropolitical and utopian – to model a moment of anarchic cooperation – then a tendency for that collective act to “break down” is worrisome, especially if it happens frequently and without external cause.


Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly.


There is no record of how the audience responded to Mac Low’s SGWU reading.28 Such evidence does exist, however, regarding the reception of another, related event, the Utica College evening for which “The Bluebird Asymmetries” was originally written, and it can help shed light on its 1971 follow up.

In the Utica Daily Press, James Willse – an Associated Press reporter and graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism – reviewed the three hour “mixed-media performance,” which he says was “designed to bring artists and audience together with words, paint, movies, balloons and noise to create a new art form” but unfortunately “resembled a giant game of charades in a house with bad wiring.” More than two hundred students painted words on signs, blew up balloons, listened to “hi-fi speakers emitting noises that sounded like a robot with an upset stomach,” watched “films of abstract colors and surrealistic shots of what looked like a civil rights rally,” and tried to follow as “the three poets present” – Mac Low, Bergé, and Williams – “read various poems, each standing at a different microphone and each reading different lines.” This event, Willse informs us, did not turn out well:

After about an hour the crowd began to thin out, and those who remained seemed less than dedicated to the creation of a new art form. Balloons were broken, oranges thrown, and signs torn down as more than one student asked, ‘Is it over?’ Interest picked up when the artists handed out soap bubble kits, but interest lagged when the soap stuff ran out.

Why the hostility? The professor who organized the show laments the “audience antagonism” that marred the occasion and credits it to a mismatch between the program and the location. “It was not meant for our students,” he says. “It was more of a New York City happening.”29

From Italian futurism to British In-Yer-Face Theatre, irritated audiences are, of course, a near-constant in narratives concerning avant-garde performance. Snarky journalists delight in the opportunity to be publicly offended. The performers receive validation, too. After all, if there’s no riot, how do you know you’re doing it right? Willse’s report concerning the May 1967 Utica College event, though, matters in the present context because the poets’ overt and explicit invitations to their audience to collaborate with them were perversely combined with a manifest indifference to how and whether the people in attendance responded to those invitations. As Willse’s article shows, Mac Low, Bergé, and Williams were determined to do what they had planned to do, for the entire three hours, whether or not sign-painting, balloon-blowing, and simultaneous poetry recitation appealed in any way to the students in the room. The undergraduates’ momentary delight in soap bubbles may sound juvenile – proof of their provinciality and lack of sophistication – but, it must be said, their childish behavior could also be considered an apt response to the poets’ rather condescending efforts at involving them in art-making. Treat them like preschoolers, in other words, and they’ll act like preschoolers.

Willse’s resentment becomes palpable when he singles out Mac Low for particular attention: “One of the poems sounded like an entry from the Audubon Bird Watcher’s Guide, containing the deathless line, ‘The bluebird is an early spring arrival’.”30 (Variations on this line occur in each of the first five parts of “The Bluebird Asymmetries.”) Far from feeling invited to engage in a noncoercive, co-creative, enlightening “new art form,” Willse appears to have experienced exclusion and mystification, unsure why he was hearing clichés lifted from a reference work instead of “deathless” poetry of the kind he would have learned about from (and heard celebrated in such terms by) the professors at his alma mater Hamilton College.

Significantly, four years later, when at SGWU Mac Low praises Williams’s “Cellar Song for Five Voices” as “beautiful” and then pauses briefly over the tendency of “laughter” to cause readings of it to “break down,” he imagines that laughter as coming not from resistant audience members but from the performers themselves. He does not remember, or take into account, the students at the earlier Utica event whose mockery was the disruptive flipside of their incomprehension and boredom. His thoughts naturally run in another direction altogether, toward an appreciation of the poem itself and what it becomes when respectfully verbalized.

Bluebird / blackbird, sky / cellar, flying high / extinct: Williams’s poem proposes stark binary oppositions whose crispness then comes undone through reiteration, reversal, and reassembly. Here is a variety of “undermining” that is less Derridean than daoist, an affirmation of the dynamic unity underlying seeming opposites. Moreover, performed straight-no-guffaws, the poem would become chant-like, akin to the mantras that inspire many of Mac Low’s works, especially his “Gathas.” The performers do have to remain minimally attentive, since from line to line their appointed word-strings are subject to relocation, but long before line one hundred and twenty the phrases that they repeat will have become emptied of meaning, reduced to tokens shifted around in obedience to mathematical rules. Any beauty thereby achieved is sure to be austere and geometric, like that to be found in near-contemporary art works such as Agnes Martin’s grid-paintings and Sol LeWitt’s cube sculptures. Participatory? Perhaps, but any collectivity that a non-humorous performance of “Cellar Song” might call into being is hardly going to be anarchist. More likely, it will prove to be ascetic and purist, as unconcerned about its auditors’ frailties as a Zen master teaching proper zazen (sitting meditation) posture.


Sounds of the Eastern Bluebird: cheer, cheer cheerful, charmer.


Arguably, the most beautiful part of the 1971 “Bluebird Asymmetries” comes about five minutes and twenty seconds into the piece. There is no assaultive static, no on-off of pre-recorded material, no hisses or shouts or extended loud vowels, no profusion of voices talking over one another. For once, it sounds as if the performers are actually listening to each other and letting each other have his or her say. There are also a few soft, widely spaced notes played on a recorder or a bamboo flute.

Consulting the poems as typed up in Representative Works, one can more or less figure out what is happening during this moment of relative calm and clarity. Three of the live performers are playing off one another as they near the end of their poem-scores. There are two women drawing to the close of “5th” and “9th Bluebird Asymmetry,” and a man is finishing up the seventh. Either the man is reading more quietly than the women or he stands at a greater distance from a microphone. All three proceed at a relatively measured pace and enunciate cleanly. The following sentence fragments occasionally overlap but still remain distinguishable and intelligible:

“is without serious faults and as a” (from “5th Bluebird Asymmetry”)

“are old apple and pear orchards” (from “7th”)

“eastern counterpart by” (“9th”)

“beneficial bird has a” (“5th”)

“that are in a state of decay” (“7th”)

“the chestnut color on its back” (“9th”)

“record equaled by a few other species” (“5th”)31

Each of the three readers speaks in turn, and in the same order. There is no interchange between them as regards content, nor is there a sudden revealing juxtaposition. “5th Bluebird Asymmetry” concludes with generalizations about the excellence of bluebirds. “7th” talks about bluebird habitats. “9th” provides a lesson about regional variation among bluebirds. One could perhaps point to the sequence of the words “beneficial” and “decay” as suggesting irony or contrast, but the performers do not play up or even acknowledge that possibility. Overall, the affect is melancholic or stoic.

Abruptly, a series of “bluebird!” interjections intrude. The second is sneering, almost shouted. Afterwards, the sound-texture noticeably thickens as nonsemantic obstructive noises start up again. The piece lasts a further four minutes. The beauty, if one wants to call it that, of this brief passage resides in the contrast between it and what comes before and after.

The 1971 “Bluebird Asymmetries” is not a sustained, orderly, self-similar, tonally flat work like Williams’s “Cellar Song.” In keeping with its announced “asymmetrical” character, it proceeds unpredictably, with certain sounds unnaturally prolonged and with static and other playback effects stopping and starting without warning. Voices come and go like actors entering and exiting at random. Certain aspects of the performance do, however, keep constant. Serious throughout, it does not aim to elicit laughter through incongruity, playful excess, or parodic repetition. There is also a rough progression observable. The speedy performers make it through their assigned parts relatively quickly, which means, over time, as certain voices drop out entirely, the overall pace also gradually slows.

Then there is the most important shaping influence of all, Mac Low himself. While he cannot be certain in advance how the performance will go, he nonetheless has a hand in every phase of the piece’s unfolding. He hands out the ten component poem-scores, which he has written himself, to performers he has selected. He arranges for a particular audiotape to be played (from a class that he taught). He instructs everyone involved, in full view of the audience, regarding what they are to do and how to do it. The sound technician is ordered to “keep the amplitude down to no higher than mezzo piano,” and he tells the performers that “those with the first, the earlier numbers should be on mic first. Those with numbers between two and five,” and just before starting he reminds them that “you can prolong any of the phonemes at the ends of lines.”32 Moreover, he makes himself responsible for the first and tenth parts of “The Bluebird Asymmetries,” so that he can be in the thick of it all from start to finish. Unsurprisingly, he proves more skilled, versatile, and variable in his delivery than anyone else present. He has, as he repeatedly reminds his audience during the evening, been doing this kind of process-based experimentation for well over a decade. Whenever he speaks, he has confidence and authority. He carefully controls, too, when and how he contributes, insuring via his pacing that he is periodically able take the spotlight, all the way until the piece’s end.

The 1971 “Bluebird Asymmetries” does not evoke an egalitarian free-jazz session in which each instrument seeks its own path with and against the others in a shifting and open-ended fashion. It more closely resembles a scene with partially scripted dialogue in which an auteur directs himself. Not coincidentally, the evening begins with a reading of one of Mac Low’s first mature works, “Glass Buildings” (1954), and it concludes with the most recently composed poem in the set, “The” from “PFR–3 Poems” (1969). In essence, he is providing the audience with an biographia literaria, a record of how he, as an artist and author, has evolved over time. He even has a tendency to call attention to himself when he has decided to remove himself from the foreground. During the passage described above, for example, he says nothing. Yet he still plays a few scattered notes on a wind instrument, as if to remind everyone that he is still present and is still actively involved in what is happening.33

Yes, Mac Low habitually describes his poetry in Buddhist terms as a vehicle for getting his conscious self out of the way. His passionate defenses of non-intentionality and aleatory composition in talks such as “The Poetics of Chance & the Politics of Simultaneous Spontaneity, or the Sacred Heart of Jesus” (1978) have helped to establish his reputation and shape his reception among avant-garde-friendly North American critics and poets, who have long been prone to declarations such as “nothing stands as a greater rebuke to ego-hugging poetry than the quiet work of Mac Low.”34 As so often happens, however, one should approach his statements regarding his poetics somewhat skeptically. They should be understood as expressing his hopes and wishes and not as a fully accurate description of what occurs when he is writing or performing. Mac Low’s 1971 reading at SGWU suggests that he espouses a poetics of the non-self because he is powerfully tempted toward self-display. Improvisation perhaps attracts him because it tests his self-control – can he, in fact, let others take the lead? – while simultaneously also giving him a satisfying opportunity to highlight and dramatize his role in creating and defining the very parameters for such improvisation.

In 2003, a year before he died, Mac Low wrote an email to Jerome Rothenberg in which he acknowledged a contradiction between a “dream” of escape from the self and the “unavoidable” reality of self-assertion at the core of all his work:

The mix of the humane and the machinic, the intentional and the quasi-nonintentional is where I’m at. Nothing a human being does can be nonintentional & why shd [sic] it? But the attempted mix is a good thing. We have to leave the door open to the fact that we’re nothing and our identity’s a dream, but one that’s not only unavoidable but necessary for us to do the slightest thing.35

Mac Low poises himself here between a “fact” (the self does not exist) and a necessity (the self must exist “for us to do the slightest thing”). Instead of attempting to overcome this opposition – which might lead him to the disempowering conclusion that personal agency cannot exist or is valueless – he believes that it is a “good thing” to endorse both a person’s capacity to act and the impossible but laudable goal of such action, abolition of the self-who-acts. Why is it “a good thing,” something that we “have to” do? One answer: It represents the kind of logical conundrum (must act v. cannot act) that is at the core of much Zen instruction. Reason has to tie itself into knots before a person can cease overvaluing his or her ability to think through and rationally resolve life’s mysteries. Only then is a “door” opened to the quiet and mindfulness that constitutes enlightenment. A second answer: the struggle to uphold irreconcilable propositions turns out to be aesthetically generative. Out of such dilemmas poetry arises.

This agon could have resulted in a profoundly solitary and introspective body of work. For Mac Low, though, his worries about control and authority led him in the opposite direction, away from self-scrutiny and into collaboration. This decision to look outwards, however, should not be confused with a straightforward embrace of a secular-materialist point of view. While not exactly wrong, such an approach to Mac Low risks oversimplifying his poetics by equating his collaborative impulse with a desire to model for others a superior kind of politics, in the sense of a theory and practice of civic governance. What if one thought of his simultaneities in relation to another form and tradition of sociality, one that rejects the madness of the secular world and dedicates itself to the pursuit of spiritual ends?

In “The Spiritual Father in the Desert Tradition” – an influential essay published the same year that Mac Low’s poetry reading at SGWU took place – the mystic and social activist Thomas Merton argues that to attain “the heights of spiritual and mystical perfection” one must submit to the guidance of a “spiritual director.”36 Why? “Worship of the self is the last and most difficult of idolatries to detect and get rid of. The monk knows this, and therefore he determines to take the proper means to destroy instead of reinforcing the image. For this purpose he renounces his own will in order to be taught and guided by another … he consults a spiritual Father.”37 While indispensable, this relationship of discipleship is also dangerous to the disciple. A “spiritual director” can be every bit as much an “obstacle” as an enabler.38 Initiates have to be careful in their choice of guide, and guides must always be vigilant not to give into pride, self-regard, or other egotistical impulses. A truly ideal spiritual community might resemble a serene, uninterrupted performance of “Cellar Song for Five Voices”: everyone equal, everyone cooperating, everyone so committed to the collective quest for perfection that they disregard any desire for novelty. It would take an assembly of saints, however, to behave so selflessly. In reality, everyone, masters and students included, have to struggle with their own willfulness, and, while they may all subscribe to the strict founding rules of their community, they must all seek individually effective ways of inhabiting that structure humbly, so as to overcome, as Merton puts it, “our illusory and obsessive concern with our own ego.”39

Mac Low: a self-appointed spiritual director? Possibly, as long as director carries with it the sense of directing a play.


I’m a bluebird, I’m a bluebird, I’m a bluebird. Yeah yeah yeah.


Mac Low’s SGWU reading may trace an autobiographical arc from 1954 to 1969, but the ordering of the pieces in between also suggest a second plotline. He starts in an apocalyptic key. The opening poem, “Glass Buildings,” responds to the first testing of the hydrogen bomb in the United States (1952) and the Soviet Union (1953): “FLAUNT SOLAR FUSION / PURGATION … OVERFLAME THE SUN.” The next poem, “, the 3rd biblical poem,” is pure Old Testament (“now up … Israel”), all its text taken from the books of Judges and First Samuel. Having prodded the audience to think about eschatology and prophesy, Mac Low then introduces Death the Pale Rider by way of two anti-Vietnam War statements, a poem titled “On the Glorious Burning of the Stars and Stripes in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park around about Noon, April 15th, 1967” and a version of “Word Event for George Brecht” that riffs with explosive intensity on the phonemes in the phrase “anti-personnel bombs.”40

The middle of the reading pulls back from the visionary fury of its first third. The emphasis falls instead on the relationship between, and interpenetration of, the self, forms of collectivity, and the world we inhabit. Live performers work their way through assorted poems from the “Numbered Asymmetries” series, and Mac Low reads several shorter pieces from the “Stanzas for Iris Lezak” manuscript, including “London,” “Sydney,” “Marseilles,” “Madrid,” and “Rome.” This process of mapping and enacting connectedness suddenly veers, however, in an unforeseen direction in a long, ominous piece titled “Pattern Recognition by Machine”: “Relations, elusive, can outperform their designers: original group from the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the Rand Corporation (now met most of the classic criteria of intelligence that skeptics have proposed).”41 Big science and think tanks enter stage left, and relationships and relationality itself are reinscribed as made things (created by “designers”) that enable competition (the opportunity to “outperform” expectations).

There are also hints that having mastered “pattern recognition” machines are on the verge of being able to “outperform” humans since they have now officially “met most of the classic criteria of intelligence.” Moreover, this new, machinic variety of intelligence appears to represent an extension, and a purified form, of the instrumental reason prized by Cold War-era technocrats: “Hierarchical structure is forced on the recognition system by the nature of the entities to be recognized … the appropriate digital information from the matrix was recorded on punch cards and fed into the computer in this form.”42 The poem leads one to ask: Have businessmen and scientists decided to abandon fuzzy human thinking in favor of the mindless command-execution of a computer? Can all knowledge really be reduced to machine code, to “information” on “punch cards,” without losing something elemental and vital, something that transcends “patterns”? Could we, courtesy of the mainframe revolution, be facing an apocalypse perhaps less operatic-sublime than nuclear war but no less dangerous?

After reading “Pattern Recognition by Machine,” Mac Low moves immediately into an unnamed simultaneity in which performers seem afflicted with aphasia, spouting disconnected words and the names of punctuation marks. If one wished to mount an argument about Mac Low’s efforts to counter fascist thinking with syntactical fragmentation, this would be the moment on which to concentrate. He has recapitulated, in slightly scrambled fashion, the discourse of technorational triumphalism in “Pattern Recognition”; now he blasts apart language, producing a pulverized stream of phonemes in which no order, no hierarchy, can be discerned. He does not, however, stop the reading at this point.43 He forges ahead, into his most forthrightly spiritual poems of the evening: “Fifth Gatha,” one of the many pieces “composed of chance-arranged transliterations of mantras, mostly Buddhist” that date from 1961 to 1973; an untitled poem “based on the Tibetan prayer to the gurus”; and (albeit accidentally) “Peaks & Lamas,” another poem with a Tibetan Buddhist inspiration.44

“The Bluebird Asymmetries” arrives at this charged juncture. By way of mantras and prayers, Mac Low has endeavored to build language back up, to re-humanize it by way of self-denying askesis and a declaration of submission to spiritual authorities. Now he tries to make a group of people (himself included) sing. Can they connect with the natural world, beyond or outside the instrumental logic and standardized diction of biological science? He draws the language of the piece from guidebooks and manuals, not from any of the multitude of poems in the Western canon about birds and bird song, from Ovid’s nightingale to Chaucer’s Chanticleer to Shelley’s skylark to Stevens’s bird with coppery keen claws. Can the performers take clichés, trivia, and bureaucratese – “Bluebird is the state bird of Missouri and New York,” “two-thirds of the bluebird’s food consists of insects,” “abundant in the well-settled country but not at all uncommon as a summer resident” – and elevate these phrases, transcending the prosaic and attaining the mystical and poetic?45 Sentences are broken up and unmeaning sounds are inserted, less in the name of an anarchist revolution than self-purification via a public ritual.

As a piece of theater, as a performed poem, the 1971 “Bluebird Asymmetries” is radical, in the original sense of cutting to the root. It advances a qualified version of the Heideggerian thesis that instrumental reason is spirit- and world-destroying and that, to set things right, we must reconnect with language at its most primal and sacred. The secular horrors that the SGWU reading contemplated at its beginning – conventional and nuclear war – are part and parcel of the mistaken agenda that has led us to the point of letting machines think for us. Mac Low gives his audience his own personal arc through these issues, from a 1950s recognition that “modernity” and “progress” have taken a horrible wrong turn to his awareness, at the pre-Watergate height of American power, that corporations are about to sideline humanity itself in the quest for an unbeatable competitive advantage. Under such circumstances, no variety of merely political engagement can save us. We are fighting for our very souls.

The value of Mac Low’s diagnosis of this problem lies in the specific form that his compositions take. He maintains that our egos lead us to hubris by encouraging us to believe that we can master the world by rationally understanding it. Trying to counter this hubris, he ends up employing modes of performance that involve strict rules, hierarchies, and submission to authority. One cannot, it seems, replace or supplant corrupted modernity with a spiritualized collectivity without inaugurating new, potentially just as troublesome relationships of power. One perpetually risks falling back into error. The most one can strive for, when seeking to distinguish redemptive spiritual authority from its baleful secular antagonist, is humility – and such a state is only partially and temporarily achievable. Mac Low may dream of a poetry as beautifully static and impersonal as “Cellar Song for Five Voices,” but in practice he more typically delivers performances such as the 1971 “Bluebird Asymmetries” in which beauty is audible but fleeting. At the dawn of the digital age, he stages for us the wrenching sense that the core of what it means to be human is beginning to change, and he searches for a secure refuge from the incursions of computer-logic into the innermost reaches of the mind and spirit.

Importantly, “The Bluebird Asymmetries” is not the last piece performed during the SGWU reading. That honor goes to “The,” one of Mac Low’s “PFR–3 Poems.” In Representative Works he introduces this project thusly:

The PFR–3 Poems were composed at Information International, Inc., in los Angeles, with the aid of their PFR–3, a programmable film reader connected to a DEC PDP–9 computer and various peripherals, in Summer 1969, when I was an invited artist-participant (the only poet) in the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


I worked with a computer program provided (and continually revised and sophisticated) by John Hansen, the vice president in charge of programming, and his assistant Dean Anschultz. Their program allowed me to enter as ‘data’ a list of ‘messages’ . . . From any list the program randomly selected and permuted series of ‘message members’ (characters, words, or strings of linked words, e.g., sentences, separated in the message by spaces) and displayed them on a monitor. When a lever on the control board was pushed, every tenth line appearing on a screen was printed out.46

As an endpoint, “The” ambiguously represents either a despairing moment of capitulation or a bold incursion into enemy territory; it is impossible to say which. Mac Low plunges into the corporate sphere and collaborates not with bohemian-leaning students and poets but with engineers and upper management. He works, too, with the latest in high tech developments, a Digital Equipment Corporation minicomputer, an ancestor of today’s desktops. At SGWU, by closing with “The,” he implicitly concedes that the flight-from-reason, escape-into-collective-enlightenment attempted in “The Bluebird Asymmetries” did not and perhaps cannot succeed, and he poses the problem of whether one can make art, and remain human in some capacity, while working with instead of against the system, while incorporating not excluding digital technologies. He has begun, willingly or not, to feel his way toward a post-human mode of avant-garde composition. The door was open to a new era of experimentation.


In the cellar high in the sky somewhere bluebirds are flying.

  1. The quotations in this paragraph are all transcribed from “Jackson Mac Low at SGWU, 1971, Part 1,” streaming audio, 41:14, from a performance at Sir George Williams University in 1971, accessed November 6, 2014,–1971-part–1/

  2. Jason Camlot, “The Sound of Canadian Modernisms: The Sir George Williams University Poetry Series, 1966–74,” Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 46, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 44. 

  3. Camlot, “The Sound of Canadian Modernism,” 44. To clarify: Mac Low’s Stanzas for Iris Lezak is a collection of poems that was written in 1960 but not published until 1972. At SGWU he read several pieces from the still unpublished manuscript of Stanzas, including “Poe and Psychoanalysis,” “Rome,” and “Sydney.” Camlot refers here to one of these poems, “Pattern Recognition by Machine,” a writing-through of an article from the journal Scientific American. The statement quoted in this passage about “collages of various times and places,” while it is applicable to many of the pieces read or performed at SGWU, refers in its original context not to Stanzas but an unnamed simultaneity that has readers repeating seemingly arbitrary strings of letters and punctuation marks. That particular performance appears to be related to – or perhaps explicitly based on – an untitled score from July 1961 that appears in An Anthology, La Monte Young and Jackson Mac Low, eds. (New York: George Maciunas, 1963): n.p. 

  4. David Antin, “Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in American Poetry,” in Early Postmodernism: Foundational Essays, Paul A. Bové, ed. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995): 74. 

  5. Camlot, “The Sound of Canadian Modernism,” 44. 

  6. Camlot, “The Sound of Canadian Modernism,” 44–45. 

  7. Camlot, “The Sound of Canadian Modernism,” 44. 

  8. Camlot, “The Sound of Canadian Modernism,” 45. 

  9. Camlot, “The Sound of Canadian Modernism,” 45. 

  10. Jackson Mac Low, Asymmetries 1–260: The First Section of 501 Performance Poems (New York: Printed Editions, 1980): 252. 

  11. Mac Low, Asymmetries, xiii. 

  12. Mac Low, Asymmetries, 245. 

  13. Jackson Mac Low, Representative Works: 1938-1985 (New York: Roof, 1986): 202. In copying this passage, I am making several assumptions about Mac Low’s page layout that could be incorrect. First, I maintain that the poem is not lineated but written in variably indented blocks of prose. Second, I dispense with the parenthetical letters that appear in the original at the beginning of certain lines because they appear to be no more than reminders that the current long repeating string of letters, which has been arbitrarily divided by wrap-around, began with a different letter. These reminders are important because that initial letter affects the pronunciation of the string as a whole. In “7th Bluebird Asymmetry,” for example, a very long passage beginning “Uhhhhhhh” is interrupted by the right margin, and Mac Low begins the next line with “(U)” before proceeding with many more h’s because he believes that it is important to remind readers that they should be making one continuous schwa sound, not switching mid-stream from schwa to heavy breathing. See Mac Low, Representative Works, 202. 

  14. Mac Low, Representative Works, 206–8. 

  15. Mac Low, Representative Works, 208. 

  16. Mac Low, Representative Works, 208. His emphasis. 

  17. Stephen Burt, “Response to Jennifer Scappettone,” Modern Philology, Vol. 105, no. 1 (August 2007): 214. He is responding to Jennifer Scappettone, “`Più mOndo i:/tUtti!’: Traffics of Historicism in Jackson Mac Low’s Contemporary Lyricism,” Modern Philology, Vol. 105, no. 1 (August 2007): 185–212. For other examples of the kind of argument that Burt is describing, see, e.g., Hélène Aji, “Impossible Reversibilities: Jackson Mac Low,” The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound, Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin, eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009): 149–165; Charles Bernstein, Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1986): 252–58; Steve McCaffery, Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and the Poetic (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001): 187–203; Tyrus Miller, Singular Examples: Artistic Politics and the Neo-Avant-Garde (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2009): 43–114; and Barrett Watten, The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2003): 31–44. Admittedly, not all of Burt’s assertions hold true across the board; Aji and Bernstein, for instance, do not emphasize politics to the same degree as the others, and McCaffery, who draws heavily on Georges Bataille, is less invested in community as a key term than Miller, Scappettone, and Watten. Burt presents a composite, simplified overview of writing on Mac Low’s poetics because he wishes to use Scappettone’s essay as an occasion to speak out more broadly about recent academic defenses of avant-garde writing. 

  18. Stephen Burt, “Response to Jennifer Scappettone,” 214. 

  19. Stephen Burt, “Response to Jennifer Scappettone,” 216. 

  20. Stephen Burt, “Response to Jennifer Scappettone,” 216. 

  21. Stephen Burt, “Response to Jennifer Scappettone,” 216–17. 

  22. All quotations in this paragraph are transcribed from “Jackson Mac Low at SGWU, 1971, Part 2,” streaming audio, 50:59, from a performance at Sir George Williams University in 1971, accessed November 6, 2014,–1971-part–2/. Mac Low in fact says that the event took place at the “University of Syracuse at Utica” (Utica College was founded by Syracuse University in 1946 and remained under its authority until 1995). 

  23. Mac Low says the performance was at the “Manna School of Music,” which seems to be a slightly mangled reference to Manna House, an East Harlem cultural center founded in 1967 by Gloria DeNard, an alumna of the Juilliard School of Music. 

  24. Transcribed from “Jackson Mac Low at SGWU, 1971, Part 3,” streaming audio, 27:58, from a performance at Sir George Williams University in 1971, accessed November 6, 2014,–1971-part–3/

  25. Transcribed from “Jackson Mac Low at SGWU, 1971, Part 2.” 

  26. Emmett Williams, “Cellar Song for Five Voices,” in Anthology, n.p. 

  27. Transcribed from “Jackson Mac Low at SGWU, 1971, Part 2.” 

  28. See Camlot, “The Sound of Canadian Modernism,” 45 for a discussion of the lack of evidence concerning audience response to the SGWU reading. 

  29. All quotations in this paragraph are taken from James Willse, “Well, It (Collaboration) Kept Them Off Streets,” Utica Daily Press, May 12, 1967: 23. 

  30. Willse, “Well, It (Collaboration) Kept Them Off Streets,” 23. 

  31. Transcribed from “Jackson Mac Low at SGWU, 1971, Part 3.” In transcribing these quotations, I have drawn on Mac Low, Representative Works, 200, 202, and 204. 

  32. Transcribed from “Jackson Mac Low at SGWU, 1971, Part 3.” 

  33. In claiming that Mac Low is responsible for playing the flute, I am following Michael Nardone. See his commentary on the opening of Mac Low’s SGWU reading, accessed July 15, 2014, at

  34. Bruce Campbell, “Jackson Mac Low,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 193, Joseph Conte, ed. (Columbia, South Carolina: Gale, 1998): 193. 

  35. Jackson Mac Low, June 4, 2003, letter to Jerome Rothenberg, accessed July 13, 2014,–16-days

  36. Thomas Merton, “The Spiritual Father in the Desert Tradition,” in Contemplation in a World of Action (New York: Doubleday, 1971): 269. 

  37. Merton, “The Spiritual Father in the Desert Tradition,” 285. 

  38. Merton, “The Spiritual Father in the Desert Tradition,” 270. 

  39. Merton, “The Spiritual Father in the Desert Tradition,” 287. 

  40. The titles and quotations in this paragraph have been transcribed from “Jackson Mac Low at SGWU, 1971, Part 1.” In doing so I have consulted Mac Low, Representative Works, 15 and 24. 

  41. “Jackson Mac Low at SGWU, 1971, Part 3.” I have quoted this passage as it appears in Mac Low, Representative Works, 96. His emphasis. 

  42. “Jackson Mac Low at SGWU, 1971, Part 3.” I have quoted the version of this passage that appears in Mac Low, Representative Works, 97–98. 

  43. One could compare the teleology here to that of John Cage’s performance piece Empty Words (1974–1975), which throughout progressively breaks down language into its component aural and graphical elements and draws to a close once maximal uncoupling and disorder has been achieved. Empty Words does seek, and purports to achieve, mental and spiritual liberation through the dissolution of all inherited structures of thought and self-expression. 

  44. The first quotation in this sentence is taken from Mac Low, Representative Works, 234. The second is transcribed from “Jackson Mac Low at SGWU, 1971, Part 3.” 

  45. Transcribed from “Jackson Mac Low at SGWU, 1971, Part 3.” 

  46. Mac Low, Representative Works, 209. 

The research leading to this publication was carried out while a Visiting Fellow with the Humanities Research Centre, RHSA, Australian National University.


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