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Archive for March, 2011

This weekend I saw the Korean film Poetry, written and directed by Lee Chang-dong.  The movie follows Mija, an elderly woman just diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s.  She lives with her louse of a grandson (as my friend labeled him) Wook, a lazy, affectless teenage boy who never thanks her for anything. Mija learns that Wook and his friends repeatedly gang-raped a younger classmate, a girl named Agnes whose body we have seen floating down a river in the movie’s opening sequence.  The rapes drove Agnes to suicide, and she has recorded her shame and anguish in a journal.  The fathers of the other boys join forces to erase their sons’ culpability.  They demand Mija pay her share of hush money to the grieving mother.  Mija does not have the money, and how she gets her share cements her increasing emotional attachment to the dead girl.

Anyway, as this disturbing plot unfolds, a lighter one develops alongside.  Mija signs up to take a poetry class at a local community center.  The class’ assignment is to write one poem by the end of the course. The instructor tells the class that in order to write a poem, they must see clearly, they must see things as they have never seen them before.  Mija takes on the assignment with an earnestness and urgency unmatched by her classmates.  She takes notes, studies trees, flowers, fruits and her kitchen sink.  Through most of the film she is unable to write the poem. We root for her success as we’d root in another movie for a losing team to win a game.

At the end of the movie Mija takes a heartbreaking moral stance on Agnes’ behalf.  Finally she is able to write her poem.  We watch from behind as she scribbles at her desk, and that is the last we see of her.

At this point I grew anxious that we weren’t going to actually hear the poem.  Maybe I was the only one who worried about it, but I felt real suspense as the movie drifted to a close.

At last we hear (or read—the movie is subtitled) Mija’s poem.  Mija reads the poem as a voiceover but soon her voice is replaced by the dead girl’s.  The poem is intended to be written by a beginning writer—it’s actually written by the director–and I read that he had qualms about it being reproduced outside the context of the film.  He’s quite right.  The words of the poem paired with a series of soothing and startling images create an overwhelming cinematic moment that you won’t get by merely reading the text.  I was shaking by the film’s end.

Still, I’m posting it here.  Mija touched me . . . I want to keep her around somehow.  And her struggle to write something beautiful and truthful about her own life and Agnes’ life reminded me of Stephen Fry’s belief that “poetry is a primal impulse within us all.”

Agnes’ Song

How is it over there?

How lonely is it?

Is it still glowing red at sunset?

Are the birds still singing on the way to the forest?

Can you receive the letter I dared not send?

Can I convey

the confession I dared not make?

Will time pass and roses fade?

Now it’s time to say goodbye

Like the wind that lingers and then goes,

just like shadows

To promises that never came,

to the love sealed till the end.

To the grass kissing my weary ankles

And to the tiny footsteps following me

It’s time to say goodbye

Now as darkness falls

Will a candle be lit again?

Here I pray

nobody shall cry…

and for you to know…

how deeply I loved you.

 

The long wait in the middle of a hot summer day

An old path resembling my father’s face

Even the lonesome wild flower shyly turning away

How deeply I loved

How my heart fluttered at hearing faint song

I bless you

Before crossing the black river

With my soul’s last breath

I am beginning to dream…

a bright sunny morning…

again I awake blinded by the light…

and meet you…

standing by me.

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More flies with sugar

poem is tucked in with sugar packets

Friendly

By Carl Dennis

The friendly way to explain the missing punch bowl

Is to assume you loaned it to someone

Who, by the time he thought of returning it,

Had lost his job and moved to another city

And loaned it to the hostess of a charity ball

Who forgot the person she borrowed it from.

As for his intention to fetch it back,

It may have been shoved aside by more pressing issues,

Like sickness, like facing his end

Without regret for projects left unfinished.

So the bowl sits in a bin in the charity basement

Still waiting to be reclaimed, just like the plate

Somebody brought to a party of yours

And never called for. Beautiful cut glass

You’ve kept safe in a drawer, unused,

To dream of the place where it was treasured.

It would be a friendly gesture now

To lift it out of the dark into the open.

Friendly to say to any guest

Who casts an appreciative glance in its direction,

“If it looks like yours, you should take it home.”

wish these photos were sharper!

I was annoyed when I looked these poorly-taken photos.  Between my efforts to poem-elf quickly and inconspicuously, and my use of a borrowed camera, the pictures are out of focus.  In these days of automatic focus point-and-shoot digital cameras, bad pictures are pretty much inexcusable.  But the truth is that a  blurry picture more accurately represents my understanding of this poem than a sharply focused one.

Because this poem puzzles me.  The conversational tone and comical worry over a punch bowl (something Monte Python-ish about worrying over punch bowls) are deceptive: this poem is as complicated to me as one of Donne’s metaphysical conceits.  I’ve read “Friendly” dozens of times and I’m still asking, What’s going on here? What’s it all about? . . .Alfie. . .  When you sort it out, Alfie? Are we meant to take more than receive? Or are we meant to be kind?. . .

Oh that Burt Bacharach.  He has a long-standing habit of intruding in my thoughts when I’m feeling vague and lost.  To move beyond my frustration with the poem, I decided to work methodically, charting the action from beginning to end.  That’s when I realized that the action of the poem, like the action in a good story, begins before the poem does:  the punch bowl is missing and the owner, let’s call him Alfie, is upset.  (We assume Alfie is upset from the speaker’s need to present an alternative, friendly, explanation for the missing punch bowl.)   Alfie must have jumped to unfriendly conclusions.  Where’s the damn punchbowl? I imagine him shouting.  Did some crazed lover of punch bowls steal it, or did someone borrow it and break it?  Wait, says the speaker, if we assume good intentions, there’s a more charitable explanation.

And then from this base of the speaker’s empathic imagination, the poem launches forth.  He creates a cast of characters, each acting with implied charity.  Alfie, the owner of the missing punch bowl, is a good friend, the type of friend you turn to when you’re in over your head hosting a party.  The man he loaned the bowl to is overset by circumstance, a lost job, illness, possible death, but he has also, helpfully, lent the punch bowl to another friend, a woman who hosts charity balls.  Then the poem returns to Alfie.  Alfie has been left with another serving piece, a cut glass plate, from one of his parties. The speaker suggests he makes a gift of it to a guest.  With all the glass sitting around, Alfie can’t throw stones:  that is, he can’t be upset about someone keeping his punch bowl when he has kept someone’s glass plate.

Is the poem, then, a meditation on loaning and returning, giving and receiving? In the world of the poem, objects move around from person to person, creating an endless flow of connections between friends and strangers. Is the message of the poem Pay it forward?

Anytime a poem is reduced to a slogan something is amiss.  So I turned from the characters to examine the objects that pass between them.  Both the punch bowl and the cut glass plate are celebratory and communal objects.  A punch bowl is used on special occasions—a baby shower, an anniversary party, gatherings in school gymnasiums—and has a sentimental air of a world that is gone, a friendlier, less self-absorbed world with less emphasis on individual choice, on getting exactly what we want.  We don’t use a punch bowl when drinks are made to order. A punch bowl’s almost like a communion cup, the line forming, everyone consuming from the same source.

The cut glass plate is also used on special occasions, for serving appetizers or little desserts, a fancy way to display any food to be passed or set on the buffet table.

As befits communal objects, the bowl and the plate are transferred among the characters of the poem, creating sort of a Brotherhood of the Traveling Serving Pieces.  Or they would if they weren’t orphaned, stored away and unused.  And then we see that the speaker’s empathy extends even to these objects.  We are asked to consider their feelings:  the punch bowl left alone in a basement, the plate dreaming of its original owner, a crystal Velveteen Rabbit.

After I sorted all this out I still felt like I was missing something.  A sense of my own thick-headedness depressed me.  Then I remembered Archibald MacLeish’s dictum that “A poem should not mean/But be, ” and Billy Collins’ frustration with his students in  “Introduction to Poetry”:

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.


So I let it go.  I left the library without “getting” the poem. But the funny thing was that while I should have felt dissatisfied, my mood was instead elevated. I walked through a misty rain in the library parking lot feeling goodwill towards everyone.  I felt almost as a spirit, floating around, mildly euphoric and gentle.  It was lovely.  All that time spent with the empathic speaker had moved me temporarily into another realm.

“Friendly” seemed like a good poem to leave at a new diner near my house one morning when I was having breakfast with my husband and some friends.  While there I saw my neighbor with her soldier son just home from Afghanistan; the friends we ate with knew the manager and talked with her; and on the way out we visited with two men we hadn’t seen in months.  They were cute in their booth, catching up with each other.  Friendliness was as much in the air as coffee fumes.

Carl Dennis is a Midwesterner by birth, born in Missouri, schooled in Ohio, Illinois and Minnesota.  He’s lived on both coasts, but seems to have retained that friendly Midwestern sensibility.  He teaches now at SUNY in Buffalo.  In 2002 he won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and has also won, among other awards, the Lilly Poetry Prize.

An interviewer once asked Dennis if poetry was useful in today’s world.  I like his response:

Poetry is useful in that it allows readers to feel that they are not alone, that others have thought and felt as they have. It can do this more powerfully than any other kind of writing, or at least more directly, because in a good poem we are made to feel that we are in the presence of a whole human being speaking to us directly, or providing a script for us to enter as we see fit.

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A few weeks after the Academy Awards comes another awards event.  Fortunately no one honored is in danger of being insulted by Ricky Gervais.  A perk of not being alive.

 

Inspired by a New York Times list of the top ten composers of all time (Bach, not Mozart headed that controversial list), University of San Francisco professor and poet Dean Radar posted a ranking of poets.  He solicited lists from readers but in the end made his own decisions.  His rules were that song lyricists wouldn’t count and non-English writers would.  He left out Homer and the Biblical writers because of questions of authorship.

 

The big surprise is that his number one slot didn’t go to Shakespeare but to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.  My own experience with Neruda is limited to a couple of quick reads in the library after which I thought, whoa, this guy is too deep for me.  This elevation of Neruda as the greatest poet of all time is a good incentive for me to try a little harder.

 

 

 

 

Here’s Rader’s list:

10. Rumi

9. William Butler Yeats

8. Li Po

7. Emily Dickinson

6. John Donne

5. Wallace Stevens

4. Walt Whitman

3. Dante Alighieri

2. William Shakespeare

1. Pablo Neruda

 

You can read Rader’s explanation for his list here.

 

My goal for the next few months is to poem-elf any of the ten I haven’t yet taken on.  Number 8, Li-Po, who Rader calls “the great poet of drunkenness,” is at the top of my list.  I’ll also try to post the poets he wished he could have included (Eliot, Rilke, Milton, Langston Hughes, Yehuda Amichai).

 

As the news from Japan grows more heartbreaking with every update and video,  I turn to #6, John Donne:

 

 

 

 

 

No man is an island

by John Donne

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as a manor of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

 

 

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poem is on bulletin board

I Want to Breathe

by James Laughlin


I want to breathe

you in I’m not talking about

perfume or even the sweet odour

of your skin but of the

air itself I want to share

your air inhaling what you

exhale I’d like to be that

close two of us breathing

each other as one as that

When I tacked this poem to a bulletin board in a mother’s center in Detroit, I thought I should explain what I was doing to the woman manning the front desk.  Whatever, her face said.  She was more concerned with arranging buckets to catch drips from the center’s leaking roof.  I am so embarrassed, my face said back. The contrast in our pursuits was a Marie Antoinette moment for me.  I headed back out in the rain as quickly as I could.

I had gone to the mother’s center, Mom’s Place, to pick up my daughter from alternative spring break.  She had spent a week in the city, cleaning out abandoned buildings, preparing food at a shelter, playing with babies.  One day she called me, buoyant and excited.  An afternoon with mentally disabled adults had ended with a riotous dance party. Dancing always makes her happy, but connecting with people of other races, classes and mental abilities was a joy for her.  Although “I Want to Breathe” is intended as a romantic poem, the longing for intimacy it expresses applies to her dance party experience as well.

Another non-romantic version of Laughlin’s longing for intimacy is “The Poop Thing” subplot in Miranda July’s strangely sweet film You and Me and Everyone We Know.  I won’t describe The Poop Thing because it would sound much creepier in words than it actually is in the film.  You can watch it here but better make sure no one is near when you watch, especially children and anyone easily offended.

(Speaking of movies, this poem also reminds me of a snatch of dialogue from Woody Allen’s Play It Again Sam.  Humphrey Bogart is giving Allen romantic advice:

Move closer to her.

– How close?

The length of your lips.

-That’s very close.  )


After hanging up “I Want to Breath” at the mother’s center, I realized that the shared breath in the poem could also be a mother-baby connection.  How well I remember leaning in face to face with my babies, listening to their tiny breaths, steady inhales and exhales sometimes interrupted by a small shudder as they settled into sleep.  After nursing I loved to smell their sweet milky breath, in and out, in and out, calming and quiet.  Few moments in life rival that for closeness and intimacy.

Laughlin’s poem with its simple language and seamless sentences is dear to me because it speaks of our most soulful need.  Don’t we all long for the purity of the intimacy he describes, breath connected to breath, an intimacy free of the masks of class, race, and religion, an intimacy stripped of what we wear, what we own, how we keep up our bodies, an intimacy that connects us to each other at a deep and fundamental level?  Well, that’s my vision of heaven anyway.

James Laughlin is the most important literary figure I’ve never heard of.  Born an heir to a steel manufacturing empire in Pittsburgh, he used a $100,000 gift from his father to start New Directions, a publishing house that nurtured new and experimental writers.  He befriended and published Tennessee Williams, Nabokov, Henry Miller, Borges, Wallace Stevens, Denise Levertov, Marianne Moore, Thomas Merton and Bretcht, among so many other luminaries, bringing them an audience in the United States they might never have found otherwise.  It took 23 years for the publisher to turn a profit—Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and a bestseller by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (imagine!) paid for all the unprofitable books.  Writer Eliot Weinberger says of him, “Laughlin was more than the greatest American publisher of the 20th century; his press was the 20th century.”

Not the least interested in the steel business, Laughlin was nonetheless grateful for the opportunities his fortune allowed.  He took a break from Harvard in his sophomore year, disappointed that modern writers were banned from the classroom, and headed off to Europe.  He worked briefly for Gertrude Stein, and then followed Ezra Pound around for six months.  Pound told him he would never be a good poet and that he should do “something useful” instead.  When Laughlin returned home, Something Useful became New Directions.

Despite Pound’s assessment of his talent, Laughlin continued to write poetry, sometimes under a pseudonym.  Of his seemingly un-complex style he said, “I like to be understood by ordinary people.”  With his fortune, accomplishments, and circle of friends, he might seem far removed from ordinary people.  But he suffered depression and his son committed suicide, and that kind of pain grounds people.  Perhaps this great poet and publisher would have enjoyed his own “publication” at Mom’s Place.

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Tomorrow, March 8, is Fat Tuesday, a single day of excess before forty days of sacrifice and deprivation.  Here in Michigan the holiday is called Pazcki Day in honor of the jelly doughnuts everyone gobbles down.  But not for me.  The day I say It’s Pazcki Day! instead of Yes, I’m eating five Peppermint Patties because it’s Fat Tuesday is the same day I order a pop instead of a soda which means never because I don’t even drink soda anymore and because just saying the word pop would obliterate my entire sense of myself as a superior person who doesn’t say that word.

To celebrate Mardi Gras poem-elf style, I direct you to my latest song obsession, Spearhead’s “Red Beans and Rice.” The song, a great get-up-and-dance tune from the 90’s, is an antidote to the Allen Ginsberg poem of my last post, “C’mon Pigs of Western Civilization.”  On Fat Tuesday, food should be a celebration, not a symptom of moral decay.  (By the same band is the more recent hit, “Say Hey (I love you).”   Sorry, couldn’t get a link without an advertisement.)

Turn it up LOUD and have yourself a little Mardi Gras.

For those who will be celebrating Fat Tuesday New Orleans style, with lots of drinking, here’s a poem for you:

Be Drunk

by Charles Baudelaire

translated by Louis Simpson

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

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poem is in between the first and second boxes of Stouffer's Macaroni and Cheese

 

My pictures could have been more artful.  But there I was, loitering in front of the frozen food cases, pretending to read the ingredients in a chicken pot pie, waiting for the aisle to empty, getting more nervous and paranoid by the second. I felt like I was doing something offensive to my fellow shoppers or maybe even illegal.  So as quickly as I could, I pointed, clicked and split.

I really wonder where this one will end up

 



C’mon Pigs of Western Civilization

by Allen Ginsberg

 

Eat Eat more marbled Sirloin more Pork ‘n

gravy!

Lard up the dressing, fry chicken in

boiling oil

Carry it dribbling to gray climes, snowed with

salt,

Little lambs covered with mint roast in rack

surrounded by roast potatoes wet with

buttersauce.

Buttered veal medallions in creamy saliva

buttered beef, glistening mountains

of french fries

Stroganoffs in white hot sour cream, chops

soaked in olive oil

surrounded by olives, salty feta cheese, followed

by Roquefort & Bleu & Stilton

thirsty

for wine, beer Cocacola Fanta Champagne

Pepsi retsina arak whiskey vodka

Agh! Watch out heart attack, pop more

angina pills

order a plate of Bratwurst, fried frankfurters,

couple billion Wimpys’, MacDonald burger

to the moon & burp!

Salt on those fries! Boil onions

& breaded mushrooms even zucchini

in deep hot Crisco pans

Turkeys die only once,

look nice, next to tall white glasses

sugarmilk & icecream vanilla balls

Strawberrry for sweeter color milkshakes

with hot dogs

Forget greenbeans, everyday a few carrots,

a mini big spoonful of salty rice’ll

do, make the plate pretty;

throw in some vinegar pickles, briney sauerkraut

check yr. cholesterol, swallow a pill

and order a sugar Cream donut, pack 2 under

the size 44 belt

Pass out in the vomitorium come back cough

up strands of sandwich still chewing

pastrami at Katz’s delicatessen

Back to central Europe & gobble Kielbasa

in Lodz

swallow salami in Munich with beer,Liverwurst

on pumpernickel in Berlin, greasy cheese in

a 3 star Hotel near Syntagma, on white

bread thick-buttered

Set an example for developing nations, salt,

sugar, animal fat, coffee tobacco Schnapps

Drop dead faster! make room for

Chinese guestworkers with alien soybean

curds green cabbage & rice!

Africans Latins with rice beans & calabash can

stay thin & crowd in apartments for working

class foodfreaks —

 

Not like western cuisine rich in protein

cancer heart attack hypertension sweat

bloated liver & spleen megaly

Diabetes & stroke — monuments to carnivorous

civilizations

presently murdering Belfast

Bosnia Cypress Ngorno Karabach Georgia

mailing love letter bombs in

Vienna or setting houses afire

in East Germany — have another coffee,

here’s a cigar.

And this is a plate of black forest chocolate cake,

you deserve it.

 

Our western culture wavers between viewing gluttony as a virtue, in the mode of Eat, Pray, Love/Paula Dean/Barefoot Contessa, in which a big appetite signifies a big heart, a joyful spirit, a lust for life; and seeing it as sinful, hence our obsession with weight loss and disgust for the fatties on reality shows.

Condemnation of gluttony is nothing new.  Sixth century Pope Gregory included gluttony in the list of Seven Deadly Sins, providing painters (see Hieronymous Bosch here) and writers ever since with rich material. In The Divine Comedy, Dante confined gluttons to the third circle of hell and described their fate as such: “In life they made no higher use of the gifts of God than to wallow in food and drink, producers of nothing but garbage and offal. Here they lie through all eternity, themselves like garbage, half-buried in the foetid slush, while Cerberus, the guardian, slavers over them as they in life slavered over their food.”

Ginsberg, a most unlikely ally to the moralists of old, subjects his gluttons not to hell but to heart attack and diabetes.  He connects the excess fat, sugar, meat and salt of the western diet with violence, aggression and indifference to the less well-fed.

Old etchings like this one aim to curb gluttony with repulsive depictions of its punishment in hell.  The poor gluttonous souls are forced to eat rats and toads.  Ginsburg does the same by force-feeding us buttered veal medallions in creamy saliva till we pass out in the vomitorium and return to the table only to cough/ up strands of sandwich still chewing/pastrami.

But his sensibility is more Hieronymous Bosch than Dante-esque.  Ginsberg is having a lot of fun here. His exuberance and energy spill out on the page. The poem is an explosion.  It’s too much.  Our diet is too much.

Like so much of Ginsberg’s work, “C’mon Pigs of Western Civilization” is written to be performed. Listen here and you’ll get a better sense of the humor and the helter-skelter, stuff-everything-in-your-mouth pace.

And then hang a copy on your refrigerator for aid in dieting or Lenten sacrifice.

To say anything about Allen Ginsburg feels tired and superfulous.  Beloved by some, despised by others, he’s become a cultural touchstone, representative not only of the Beats, but of the LSD flying free ashram caftan flower power (he coined the phrase) sixties. Sometimes he seems more an historical event than an actual person.  Yet his life fascinates me (can’t wait to see the James Franco movie) and a quick sketch is merited.

He was born in New Jersey in 1926 to Russian-Jewish parents.  His mother was a sometimes-nudist and passionate Communist who took young Allen and his brother to party meetings. She was also an epileptic and a paranoid depressive.  When Ginsberg was a junior in high school, she insisted he take her on the bus to a therapist. She didn’t come back.  She spent the next fifteen years in mental institutions, subjected to electric shock, lobotomy and early death.  Wow.  He was just a boy, 15 or 16, and he had to escort his suffering mother to a prison of sorts.  I just can’t get over that. I think of the deep and tender attachment teenage boys carry for their mothers, underneath all their bravado and separation struggles, and Ginsberg’s childhood just rips me up.

Growing up in such a household, it’s no surprise he was drawn to counter-culture.  He was an outsider from the get-go.  Besides, he was a gay man back in the dark ages for homosexuals. At Columbia he met up with Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady.  They formed the Beats, the much-hipper and better dressed precursor to the hippies of the sixties.  You can see Ginsberg and the other Beats in a movie they made with the delightful title Pull My Daisy (shown here with convenient Italian subtitles), a movie that’s been called a bohemian Seinfeld.

Ginsburg experimented with lots of drugs but by the early 60’s found he achieved the same altered state of consciousness with meditation and other practices of eastern religions.  He stopped using drugs just as more and more people were starting to use them.

In 1955, he performed “Howl” for the first time. Poet Gary Synder characterized the historic performance as “a curious kind of turning point in American poetry.”  Kerouac described the evening in On the Road (using fictitious names) this way: “everybody was yelling “Go! Go! Go!” (like a jam session) and old Rheinhold Cacoethes (Kenneth Rexroth) the father of the Frisco poetry scene was wiping tears in gladness.”

The attempt to suppress the poem in an obscenity trial backfired. Ginsburg became an international celebrity, and “Howl” has been translated into 23 languages.

Ginsberg used his fame and his charisma to advance his political causes.  He was outspoken against the Vietnam War and an early advocate of gay rights and human rights around the world.  He died in 1997 at age 71.

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