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Davis McCombs, Dismal Rock

Dismal Rock serves up a variety of short poems that masterfully blend fiction and prose. Most of McComb’s poems have a title that presents the topic of the poem and then he expands from there. However, his brilliance lies within his ability to write about his topics in a somewhat conversational manner that is loaded with a dense, sophisticated vocabulary. In fact, his poem “Lexicon” is all about conversations in Southern Kentucky.

“The people are talking about budworms, they are talking
about aphids and thrips. Under the bluff at Dismal Rock,
there where the spillway foams and simmers,
they are fishing and talking about pounds and allotments;
they are saying white burley, lugs and cutters.
Old men are whittling sticks with their pocketknives
and they are saying Paris Green; they speak of topping
and side-dressing; they are whistling and talking
about setters, planet beds stripping rooms. (5)

The vocabulary in these lines entrances me. A lot of it (like “lugs” and “thrips”) may just be common to his roots, but to the unfamiliar reader it speaks volumes from both an intellectual and regional standpoint. Such language draws me into his world and gives me perspective on his cultural heritage. I also sit around and try to imagine what some of these words even mean. The imagery is provocative and demands me to continue reading. The “story” being told here is simple but surprisingly deep.

The first section of the book deals with poems about Southern Kentucky. The book’s second half delves into a variety of different topics. Here’s an excerpt from “Bob Marley”.

“In Negril we were duped and hustled
for a week, but even there, in the muscled,

blood-veined face of the bauxite mine,
in the coconuts we drank with straws–too green,

lobotomized–something more, some quiver
of a man, of fingers at the strings of your guitar.” (32-33)

You really get a sense of what Marley meant to McCombs. Throughout the poem the man himself is never mentioned. You are only given strong imagery and carefully-worded depictions of Jamaica. The poem is in tune (bad pun intended) with the man’s musical gifts: soulful and rhythmic. I’m positive the two-line blocks (like the two-beat sound often found in reggae) is very intentional. Anyway, give Dismal Rock a read sometime. It is very impressive.

A picture is worth a thousand words…A recommendation for Natasha Trethewey’s “Bellocq’s Ophelia”

Natasha Trethewey’s second published collection, “Bellocq’s Ophelia”, is the result of research that she began while still in graduate school. She got her idea for this collection of poems from seeing E. J. Bellocq’s “Storyville Portraits”, which contained photographs of prostitutes, many of whom were women of mixed races who lived in the infamous red-light district of New Orleans during the early 1900s. These persona poems present an octoroon prostitute, imaginatively named Ophelia, living in the pleasure palaces of Storyville, New Orleans. Divided into three sections, Trethewey’s period piece covers Ophelia’s life from October 1910 to March 1912. Sections 1 and 2 contain 15 letters; Section 3 has 10 sonnets.

Trethewey found her protagonist in 33 pictures of passing courtesans taken by photographer E. J. Bellocq. (Ophelia’s father is white, but she doesn’t seem burdened by racial self-hatred or identity confusion.) The majority of Bellocq’s photos are seductive nudes and not conservatively dressed like Ophelia. Trethewey’s choice of this particular prostitute mirrors her formal exactitude and thematic fastidiousness. In relating her customers’ indulgences, Ophelia tells us, ”There are those whose desires I cannot commit to paper.” Trethewey’s restrained ear and eye lead to metaphorical epiphanies, such as when Ophelia admits in ”Letter From Storyville,” ”I am the African Violet for the promise of the wild continent hidden beneath my white skin.”

I mentioned Trethewey’s fastidiousness due to her meticulous sonnets of the third section of her collection. Trethewey sticks rather strongly to the traditional sonnet, using 14 lines with 10-beats each. She rarely strays from this rigid form. Her sonnets become successful because of their clever enjambments and well-placed caesuras throughout, keeping the pace of the poem consistently smooth. Here is an example, her first sonnet entitled “Naming”:

I cannot now remember the first word
I learned to write—perhaps it was my name,
OPHELIA, in tentative strokes, a banner
slanting across my tablet at school, or inside
the cover of some treasured book. Leaving
my home today, I feel even more the need
for some new words to mark this journey,
like the naming of a child—Queen, Lovely,
Hope—marking even the humblest beginnings
in the shanties. My own name was a chant
over the washboard, a song to guide me
into sleep. Once, my mother pushed me toward
a white man in our front room. Your father,
she whispered. He’s the one that named you, girl.

Ophelia possesses a robust intellectual curiosity. Her intelligence becomes a form of resistance. Her customers might have dominion over her body, but not her mind. Ophelia relishes and resents memory and realizes how the ”camera fastens us to our pasts.” She desires freedom from it.
Although the book is not illustrated, except for the stoic black and white picture of Ophelia on the cover, the reader does not feel the need to see the actual photos that Trethewey describes. In fact, Trethewey does a better job of describing the photos through her poetry than actually seeing the photographs yourself. The poem “Photograph of a Bawd Drinking Raleigh Rye” is a perfect example:

The glass in her hand is the only thing moving—
too fast for the camera—caught in the blur of motion.

She raises it toasting, perhaps, the viewer you become
taking her in—your eyes starting low, at her feet,

and following those striped stockings like roads,
traveling the length of her calves and thighs. Up then,

to the fringed scarf draping her breasts, the heart
locket, her bare shoulder and the patch of dark hair

beneath her arm, the round innocence of her cheeks
and Gibson-girl hair…

This poem really sucks the reader in, providing an intimate angle of the prostitute. I would highly recommend “Bellocq’s Ophelia” to anyone who wants to read vivid, descriptive, and engaging poetry created in a very interesting way. Natasha Trethewey’s idea to create a narrative derived from photos is pretty unusual but very successful.

-Danny M.

Recommendation: “A Murmuration of Starlings” by Jake Adam York

“The sheriff says it wasn’t Till we pulled from the river,
that man was as white as I am, white as cotton
blowed by the cotton gin fan that weighed him down,
looked like he’d lain there weeks, not a kid at all.”

In his second published book of poetry, A Murmuration of Starlings, Jake Adam York confronts the ever painful history of violence during the Civil Rights era. Each poem acts as an elegy for the many martyrs of the movement who senselessly, and brutally, lost their lives to hate and segregation. Written around one central idea, each narrative builds upon each other to create an anthology fitting of any gravestone memorializing one of the darkest eras of American history and the victims that sacrificed their lives for the equality and justice of African-Americans.

In each poem, York creates chilling images of murder, rape, and destruction, leaving the reader lost in their own feelings of pain and regret. He remains very close to historical accuracy in each poem, especially “Substantiation,” which the quote above is taken from. This poem was written in memoriam of Emmet Till, a teenager from Chicago who was heartlessly murdered while on vacation with his family in Florida. The poem had amplified meaning for me since I was part of presentation group in Dr. Tweedy’s African-American literature that discussed the history of lynching which focused of Till’s murder. Emmet Till was first kidnapped, tortured, beaten, and shot to death. His body was then weighed down in a river by a cotton gin fan. As I read the poem it was difficult for me to fathom how someone could be inspired to write beautiful poetry on such a horrible subject, however York overwhelmingly succeeds. While very accurate, the poem does not read like a history lesson. Instead, York articulates retelling the harsh brutality surrounding not only the discovery of the mutilated and decomposed body of the boy, but through the hectic and emotional whirlwind which followed in the criminal trial. York is successful, I think, because he does not dance around the subject, but treats it directly with simplistic language to evoke the appropriate feeling from the reader. The poem stretches on for nine agonizing, but necessary, pages, continually falling back to the image of the Shakespearean starlings darting across a sullen sky and leaving the reader wondering how people could treat someone so terribly and ruthlessly.

The majority of York’s poems are not nine pages, but rather short, on page elegies that evoke immeasurable amounts of emotion in such short spans. He relies heavily on couplets, utilizing again simplistic language and short, “to the point” lines. Here is an excerpt from “For Reverend James Reeb”:

“and the night and everything so they cannot see
what’s coming, what hits them, what feet, what pipes

at their ribs, who’s saying Now you know,
now you know what it’s like to be a real nigger

and no one can see what lands, what cracks
the skull, the hairline fracture in tangled hair,

what’s nesting, what’s beating there,
what wings are gathering in his eyes.”

A subject such as this, with all the emotion and feeling that surrounds it, is very difficult for anyone to write about. There are aspects which are very hard to articulate into words, especially for a white man. York initially received some criticism due to the fact that he is a bald, skinny white guy, plain and simple. However, the criticism quickly turned to respect as people realized what he was doing was necessary. Furthermore, he does not write for the admiration of him or his poetry, but for the admiration of the fallen men and women who died simply because they were black and wanted equal rights. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is prepared to delve into the horrible history of the Civil Rights movement. However, this book requires patience from the reader. A Murmuration of Starlings does not rely on the strength of each individual poem or lines, but instead York creates a compilation which can only be fully appreciated if one is prepared to fully engross themselves into the entire collection. Please read A Murmuration of Starlings. It will shock you, horrify you, and uplift you all in one reading.

-Danny M.

An Almost Pure Empty Walking, Tryfon Tolides

So, I’m not going to lie, I picked this book because of its title. I decided that “An Almost Pure Empty Walking” had to either be either really pretentious or just really meaningful. I’m glad to report it was the latter. Tryfon Tolides grew up in a small village in Greece before moving to America,  and most of his poetry reflects immigrant status. In his poetry, he explores themes including home and nationality, in addition to his more universal reflections on family. Tolides verse is simple, yet powerful with strong visual imagery conveying abstract emotion. Tolides was a winner of the 205 National Poetry Series of this collection, which I would definitely recommend to everyone is class.

One of my favorite poems from the collection is, “Returning from Greece.”

A deep blue luminous dye surrounds the edges

of the land. Hours later, we touch down in New York.

The water is gray. We are tired

and begin to forget, again. Without

knowing it we march off in the various directions.

Like most of Tolides’ poems in the collection, this poem is very economical. Regardless, the words are deliberate and manage to convey the feelings of a reverse homecoming. Tolides is able to convey the strange disorientation that accompanies airplane travel. Tolides compares the water of the two places he has called home, which gives the reader not only the writers associations with both locations, but also the view from the airplane window. In addition, Tolides’ recognition of unknowing forgetfulness that the speaker experiences after arriving in New York, serves as commentary on memory and also the duality of the speaker’s notions of home.

The first poem in Tolides’ collection is called “Immigrant.” He begins narrating a call from his mother,

“What is America?” she said. “A hole in the water.

What have we gained but poison and illness?”

Her whole message, a cry, though stilll she asked

what I would eat for lunch. Back in bed,

I listened awhile to the furnace. Then, dressed,

passed the same books and papers spread on the floor,

and out, to the snow, the crows in the park

The entire poem is only twelve lines long, with fairly regular measure. The character of the mother appears frequently in Tolides’ collection, which gives another voice to the immigrant experience. The difference in the speaker and the mother gives way to the interpretation of generational differences in immigration, but also touches more personally on the relationship between mothers and sons.

Also, throughout the collection Tolides’ provides images of silence. Tolides frequently slows the readers down (as in the last lines of the poem) with ordinary imagery, providing lasting depth. Any author able to make the transition from a phone call ridden with complaints to crows in the park, has a level of mastery and control in their language, as well as the ability to link imagery with moments of quiet meditation.

An Almost Empty Walking showcases Tolides abilities to vary his verse (poems appear of nearly every conceivable structure and line length), and his ability to convey an immigrants experience and search for American identity. I reccomend Tolides for both an outside look into American culture, and also for an example of the success of quiet verse. Bruce Smith says of the Tolides, “It takes a skillful musician, or poet, to play quietly,” and I couldn’t agree more.

-Kelly

Recommendation: “Backsass” by Fred Chappell

BacksassI think it took me about three times longer to read this book than it should have, because whenever I finished a poem, I had to get up, run into the other room, and make my roommate read it too. And then she would try to take the book away and keep reading, and I’d have to wrest it from her and run away.

This is not entirely because Fred Chappell’s “Backsass” is the most brilliant collection of poems I’ve ever read, but it may be one of the most fun. The poetry, as a whole, keeps tongue in cheek, while occasionally hitting a more poignant note, from which it will unfailingly pull away from sentiment by working into the overall “joke” of the poem. For example, he writes a poem entitled “No, Said St. Peter,” in which St. Peter is telling a soul at the gates that he cannot call in his parents or a lawyer, and it ends thusly:

“so your personal lawyer is not an option
but we do provide court-appointed
in cases of spousal abuse like yours
and the firm of Steinem Friedan & de Beauvoir
will send someone over and my advice is
Keep your hands to yourself”

This poem also does something characteristic of the poems in the rest of the book, wherein in the title functions as the first line. Another example of this is “Listen Up, Evildoers Everywhere, Now,” where the first line is “that I have my secret credentials.” This gives the poems a slightly more casual conversational feel, as though the title (instead of announcing the poem) is just providing a segue in, as if to say, “Hey, did you hear about when . . .” This tone is echoed by the two answering machine poems that bookend the book, the first telling us that we’ve reached Fred’s answering machine and he doesn’t really know anything, and the second ending by telling us:

“so now I will tell you the secret
of the universe and save you further bother

here it is:

you may wish to find pen and paper

a time will come when it is no longer time

no I don’t understand it either but then
I don’t have to

I got it from the Delphic Oracle
who is the Mother of all answering machines

don’t call here again”

The problem with having begun quoting, now, is that the urge to quote more poems and more of said poems becomes nearly too great to resist, because this is a collection of poems that fairly begs to be shared with anyone who might need to laugh at something both smart and self-deprecating, both sarcastic and hopeful, and both formal and informal. (He even has a couple of long rhymed poems in the book, proving that he’s capable of more formal, structured work, but clearly prefers the freedom of the nearly punctuation-less free verse of the rest of the collection.)

I would recommend Fred Chappell’s “Backsass” because, while I do (essentially) live for poetry that breaks your hearts with its sheer beauty, sometimes I feel like I have to remember the poetry that makes you smile as well. I want to describe this work as a little bit Billy Collins, a little bit Tom Lehrer, and a little bit . . . something else I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s just a lot Fred Chappell, then. I wish I could quote entire poems in here to entice the world to read some more, but that seems almost counter-productive if the goal is to get everyone to look at his book. If, however, one were to pick up a copy and only want to read one poem (thereby doing him- or herself a great disservice), I would recommend “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” which has nearly nothing to do with the song of that title and nearly everything to do with the difficulty of having two brains. That description alone ought to clue you in to the kind of strange, irreverent treat these poems are, but I feel that the aforementioned St. Peter poem and answering machines only help to sweeten the deal, so to speak. Additionally, if you need any sort of anecdotal evidence, I have just found myself looking up its price on Amazon, because I’m pretty convinced I need more fun poetry on my shelves.

-Alyssa Johnson

Recommendation: R.T. Smith’s Split the Lark

R.T. Smith’s Split the Lark explores a variety of subjects through the lenses of entrapment versus freedom and also insight into the natural world.  His subjects include the entrapment of Native Americans and the Irish, an examination of birds, so often associated with ideas of freedom, and finally a fascination with the natural world in general, writing about a range of topics from “shrill needlework/of late summer cicadas” (24) to the soothing “names of trees” (22) to the “mischief” of bears (27).

 

The two topics I find most interesting are Smith’s portrayal of entrapment through the condition of Native Americans in terms of the demise of their civilization and treatment by the United States and the living conditions of the impoverished Irish.

 

In the poem “Red Anger,” Smith describes Native American reservation life that is tainted by disease, low moral, death, alcoholism, anger, and ultimately entrapment and demise of the Native American people and their culture.  Using vivid and disturbing imagery, such as the reservation school that “is brown and bleak/with bugs’ guts mashed against the wall and rodent pellets reeking in corners,” Smith creates a haunting and hopeless world within the reservation.  Each description is written in a single stanza and followed by a name of a Native American tribe, as shown, for example, in lines 17-25:

 

“His father drinks

pale moonshine whiskey

and gambles recklessly at the garage,

kicks dust between weeds in the evening

and dances a fake-feathered rain dance

for tourists and a little cash.

Even the snakes have left.

Even the sun cannot stand to watch.

 

Cherokee.”  

 

The final stanza repeats the names of each Native American tribe previously described, calling them “the living trail of tears” (37), removing the term of trail of tears from an event described in a history book to the “living” and breathing present of suffering people.

 

The poem “The Magdalene” describes another type of entrapment and despair of Irish girls who labor in a laundry shop in Galway.  Without any home or “cast off by kin” (8), these girls have no other livelihood other than to live and word at Magdalene Laundry.  Malnourished, weary, and depressed, these girls face a life of loneliness and drudgery without rest.  Smith describes their entrapment that is passed from one generation of impoverished girls to the next:

 

“how a century

 

of sad ladies ate the hard bread and ladled

broth behind a dozen

 

locks, craving only

one stroll by the sea

or a simple lily at mass…” (51-57)

 

Smith considers this a hopeless situation, just as he insinuates is the case in “Red Anger.”  The   final stanzas of “The Magdalene” read:

 

“and not even

an artifact grown cold

in that unholy wall can lift

 

a life of misery

to the song of an angel

windblown as lynched

 

laundry or trapped

in a scouring stone” (58-65).

 

Ultimately, Smith’s strong imagery and diction capture the mood and tone of a variety of subjects while painting unique scenes that grab the reader’s attention.  I would recommend R.T. Smith’s Split the Lark for a diverse read that explores different settings, characters, and wildlife through numerous lenses.    

 

– Ellen Ferrante

Recommendation: Birds and Other Relations

Dezso Tandori has found success as a novelist, playwright, translator, and novelist but is most renowned in Hungary for his poetry. I found this slender volume in Riverby, and the cover immediately caught my eye: a pair of disembodied hands and a small bird perched on a finger. The exoticism of a famed Hungarian poet appealed to me, and I was sold when I flipped to a page and the original Hungarian was on a page facing the English translation for each poem. The odd aesthetic beauty of Hungarian with its dashes and umlauts in almost every word makes this book worth buying, disregarding the poetry entirely–but the poetry is fantastic; conversational without being overly simplistic and lyrical without being dense.

Of course there is some frustration involved in reading translated poetry, and I feel like quite a bit was lost, especially not being familiar whatsoever with Hungarian culture. Reading a massive, multivolume novel in translation is much different from poetry, which unfortunately loses much of its lyrical zing. I have no idea whether this translation is actually good or not, but the fact that it was translated is fully apparent–you could read these poems without knowing their original context and tell that they were originally written in a foreign language. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it adds a foreign sheen and some gravitas that might otherwise be lost on some of these understated poems.

The main tension in this volume is realizing a personal, aesthetic identity in the face of what is a cold, scientific, impersonal world. Take the first poem “Application for a Constellation”

Thank you for having chosen me from among my numerous

green-plant brothers.

Of the home-grown plants avail-

able to us I am one of the most un-

assuming. I come from East Indian, my extensive family

can boast of many gorgeous varieties.

Each variety requires, in winter, a place with constant temper-

ature of 18-20 C. I am one of those plants

In need of light. I request bright daylight.

This is an individual plant describing himself, alternately, as a single existence, but also part of a collective–the main tension throughout the book: how to exist individually and as part of a group? He laments the emptiness of the solitary, literary existence in “Let’s Buy Him an Alarm Clock…Oh, He Has One? Well, Then a Book. He Has that Too!” “The echo of writing can only be writing./ All I always do is keep replying.” He realizes the necessity of belonging to inject meaning into writing, yet when one sacrifices identity, isn’t a part of oneself sacrificed?

The birds flit in and out of the poems, not as frequently as you might expect, given the title. But I believe they exist as so extraordinarily important in this volume, because Tandori has chosen them to represent the ultimate unselfconscious creatures who belong to a collective, yet remain independent and totally free–something that Tandori strives for in his poetry.

The Rebel’s Silhouette

I am an avid reader of poetry and I love going outside the traditional ideas of poetry such as English and American. And so I have become a huge fan of finding foreign authors to read such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Faiz was born in India and has become one of the leading poets in South Asia. His poems which have been translated into English have been gathered in a collection called The Rebel’s Silhouette.

The poems he has written are in a particular form known as the Ghazal. It is a very strict type of lyrical poem with a very particular form but it makes for really beautiful poems that have a melody  that I haven’t seen in any other places. 

One of the Ghazal’s written within this collection that seems so beautiful is this excerpt from one from his selected poems:

Let the breeze pour colors
Into the waiting blossoms

I am an avid reader of poetry and I love going outside the traditional ideas of poetry such as English and American. And so I have become a huge fan of finding foreign authors to read such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Faiz was born in India and has become one of the leading poets in South Asia. His poems which have been translated into English have been gathered in a collection called The Rebel’s Silhouette.

The poems he has written are in a particular form known as the Ghazal. It is a very strict type of lyrical poem with a very particular form but it makes for really beautiful poems that have a melody  that I haven’t seen in any other places. 

One of the Ghazal’s written within this collection that seems so beautiful is this excerpt from one from his selected poems:

Let the breeze pour colors
Into the waiting blossoms

Unlock the warehouses
Where those colors are stored

Oh love now return
So the promised springtime may finally begin …..

Michael Blumenthal’s Days We Would Rather Know

This is not my poem,

but a poem which –

if I were a citizen

of another country –

I would write for you.

And you would love it,

I’m absolutely certain.”

-Poem By Someone Else

Such is Michael Blumenthal’s heartful poetry, humble & austere, richly longing & playful all at once.  His words are creatures amongst themselves, framing scenes within sentences & fitting frames around these frames: a layered tapestry of verse & imagined love.

In Days We Would Rather Know, Blumenthal tackles themes & concerns evident at the most human level: a father’s degradation into post-maturity, a man’s feminine side (sometimes sensitive, most times not), the strength of a single word whispered at just the right time by just the right someone.  His poems act as philosophical tableaus through lenses we all recognize, & his language has a way of depicting scenes beautifully with a single line.

How a man aches at times like these toward

places he has left and can never return to;

how he looks into the faces of his own wife

and child and staggers to bed in the sheer

empathy and pain of wanting to become them.

And how, when his wife rises from the dimmed

light of their child’s afterbirth, he too

will rise, and all that is good in this world

will speak his name into the tight tercet

of their togetherness.  And his son

will call him Father, and his wife: a man.”

– Couvade

The book is separated into five sections, each containing poetry indicative of the section’s title.  While the most powerful section is The Woman Inside, with its repeated imagery of gender disassociation & wanton wombs, the final section, Days We Would Rather Know, contains some of the sharpest poems the book has to offer.  I have spent a long time posting this review for the simple reason that each poem by Blumenthal warrants an immeasurable number of readings, & to give them any less attention would be a disservice.  His work is one yearning for love & comfortable with a life well loved at the same time, & this struggle creates not only the backbone of this book but, one could argue, life itself.

[Brad Efford]

As a post-script, Blumenthal is currently spending time in residence at West Virginia University, & the following is a reading he gave from his seventh book, And, at the WVU library.  It’s worth the time.

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 W.H. Auden has written some of the most beautiful poetry on love that I have read. People often refer back to Shakespeare (and his sonnets) as the writer who captured love in form and while I love Shakespeare and his ability to capture passion for women I believe Auden to have taken a point of view which captured my attention and took my gaze away from lovely old Bill.

One of the things that captured me was Auden’s ability to depict the entire spectrum of love. From family to lover his poetry beautifully encapsulates all of the forms of love that man can and is touched by throughout his life. The way in which he captures not only the rush and elation of a love that is new and excting but also those anxious fears which come with the knowledge that you have found true love leaves his readers, I think, once again wrapped up in the emotions that exist around this word love.

Though there are only ten poems within this small selection I think that my favorite is the last one entitled Funeral Blues which deals with the loss of a loved one.

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policeman wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working wee and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

There is such a beauty in this poem, as with all of the others in the collection, because I don’t think there is a truer form of love than that which we encounter and express when we lose someone we love.

-Caitlin

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