Category Archives: Poetry

If Only Sleep Would Come: One Night by Umberto Saba

Night and Sleep by Evelyn De Morgan, 1878

One of my favorite literary bloggers, Tom from Wuthering Expectations, did a post on Modern European Poetry with a focus on the Greek poetry contained within this wonderful volume.  If you haven’t had a chance to read Tom’s posts then please do yourself a favor and peruse his blog.  His analysis of literature is full of what the Roman poet Catullus would call facetiae (wit) and lepida (charms).

As I was reading through this collection of modern poetry, I was happy to find poems by Ingeborg Bachmann whose name I have seen many times on bloggers’ personal canons.  A few poems by the Italian author Umberto Saba also captivated me.  I thought I would share one particularly short yet moving piece (Catullus would definitely approve!)

One Night

If only sleep would come, as it has come
on other nights: already slipping through
my thoughts.

Instead now,

like an old washerwoman wringing clothes,
anguish wrings another pain from my heart.
I would cry out but cannot. As for torment—
suffered once—I suffer on in silence.

And that which I have lost, only I know

Translated by Felix Stefanile

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Everyone Forgets that Icarus also Flew: Poetry by Jack Gilbert

One of the things I like best about being part of such a great lit blogging community is the daily book recommendations I receive from like-minded readers.  Many have lamented the death of literary Twitter, but even on this crazy social media site I have managed to block out most of the nonsense and glean book suggestions from and engage in interesting literary conversations with other bloggers.  The other day as I was scrolling through my feed and reading the posts from my interesting literary friends (you know who you are) when I saw a Tweet that included a poem by Jack Gilbert entitled “Failing and Flying” that begins, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.”  I immediately ran to my bookshelves and pulled out the volume of Jack Gilbert that I had bought a while back based on a recommendation from another reader.  What a pleasant experience it is to be involved and included in a community of people who love books and literature and talking about such things.  I was never the “cool” kid in school but being part of lit blogging makes me feel that I am a part of the “in” crowd.

Jack Gilbert often uses references and allusions to Greek and Roman myths and literature in his poems which makes reading his pieces a richer experience for me.  I thought I would share just a few of the poems that made the greatest impression, but I highly recommend reading his entire volume of Collected Poems.

Orpheus in Greenwich Village:

What if Orpheus,
confident in the hard-
found mastery,
should go down into Hell?
Out of the clean light down?
And then, surrounded
by the closing beasts
and readying his lyre,
should notice, suddenly
they had no ears?

Some days, especially at this time of the year, it feels as though I am Orpheus signing to the “beasts” who have no ears.

Many of the poems in this collection contemplate the different types of love we experience throughout the course of our lives. Gilbert talks about young love, passionate love, mature love and married love. The next poem I chose describes the enigmatic nature of love’s genesis and evolution. I thought, as I read this poem, that “we cobble love together” like a mosaic and every time we fall in love the experience is like composing a different work of art:

Painting on Plato’s Wall:

The shadows behind people walking
in the bright piazza are not merely
gaps in the sunlight. Just as goodness
is not the absence of badness.
Goodness is a triumph. And so it is
with love. Love is not the part
we are born with that flowers
a little and then wanes as we
grow up. We cobble love together
from this and those of our machinery
until there is suddenly an apparition
that never existed before. There it is,
unaccountable. The woman and our
desire are somehow turned into
brandy by Athena’s tiny owl filling
the darkness around an old villa
on the mountain with its plaintive
mewing. As a man might be
turned into someone else while
living kind of happy up there
with the lady’s gentle dying.

And one final poem worth pointing out is entitled “Trouble,” the first three lines of which I found rather striking:

That is what the Odyssey means.
Love can leave you nowhere in New Mexico
raising peacocks for the rest of your life.
The seriously happy heart is a problem.
No the easy excitement, but summer
in the Mediterranean mixed with
the rain and bitter cold of February
on the Riviera, everything on fire
in the violent winds. The pregnant heart
is drive to hopes that are the wrong
size for this world. Love is always
disturbing in the heavenly kingdom.
Eden cannot manage so much ambition.
The kids ran from all over the piazza
yelling and pointing and jeering
at the young Saint Chrysostom
standing dazed in the church doorway
with the shining around his mouth
where the Madonna had kissed him.

Who among us with “pregnant heart” hasn’t traveled a long distance, endured discomfort, various tribulations and the agony of hope all in the name of love?

Have you read this collection or any other pieces by Jack Gilbert? Or, better yet, what other poetry or literature recommendations have you gleaned from the lit blogging community recently?

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Review: The Happy End/All Welcome by Mónica de la Torre

My Review:

As much as companies like Google have attempted to rearrange office space into non-traditional configurations and break free of the rat maze of traditional cubicles, we still show up to work every day and have to function within a corporate structure.  Monica de la Torre’s collection of poems in The Happy End/All Welcome satirize the futile attempts of office dwellers to break free of the constraints imposed on them by bosses, human resources, and even the chairs they sit in.  De la Torre cleverly highlights the absurdity that we face in our every day work lives by using a scene from the unfinished Kafka novel, Amerika,  as her backdrop.

Kafka’s Amerika, which was published posthumously, tells the story of sixteen year-old Karl Roßmann who is forced to emigrate to the United States after it is revealed that he was seduced by a housemaid.  At the end of the novel, after Karl has had adventures with a stoker from the passage ship, a couple of drifters and his uncle, he sees a job advertisement for the Nature Theater of Oklahoma which promises to employ every applicant.  When Karl is hired as a “technical worker” he goes off to Oklahoma by train but the novel breaks off suddenly within this final chapter.  The poems in de la Torre’s collection are all set in a job fair being held by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma from Kafka’s novel.

De la Torre uses an interesting array of formats and arrangements for her poems: interviews, ad copy, reports, questionnaires and descriptions of chairs are all employed to satirize every aspect of corporate life from the job interview, to office design, to strategic plans, to the use of social media and to office politics.  Inspired by artist Marin Kippenberger’s installationThe Happy End of Franz Kafka’s Amerika” the poet states at the beginning of her collection that we are to imagine “an assortment of numbered tables and office desks with pairs of mismatched chairs within a soccer field flanked by grandstands.”  The numbered tables become the settings of poems involving job interviews for applicants who are sorely unqualified but are hired anyway.  These series of poems magnify the painful experience for everyone involved–applicant, employers, human resources, headhunters— in the job application process.  At Table 20, for example, an aspiring lifeguard with a terrible case of astigmatism is immediately given the job despite openly admitting his vision impairment.  And some applicants are asked to do the most random, absurd tasks that seem more fitting for auditions for a reality TV show than an office job:

Three people sitting on a tandem bench come forth.

Each applicant is assigned a color around which to improvise
lyrics for jingles.

Only found language displayed in the color assigned to each can
be used.

Applicants are given two hours to go searching for text in the city.

The Assistant Director selects corresponding loops from the
Buddha Machine 2.0, a portable music player, as accompaniment.

One of the funniest and most absurd poems describes a headhunter and the object of his hunt, a man who oddly looks like the artist Martin Kippenberger:

A Headhunter at the hunting blind at the edge of the field
keeps an eye on a middle-aged potbellied man in oversized
underwear who eerily resembles Martin Kippenberger. He’s
about to get in a full-sized Barbie tub near a couple of lifeguard
chairs, holds a cigarette in one hand and a hard-boiled egg in
the other.

In the Headhunter’s estimation, the man could be either rapt
in thought or overhearing the interview between the Bather
and the Lifeguard next to him. He might also be reminiscing
on the teepee villages at American Western theme campsites
he stayed at in the old days with friends, which always had hot
tubs.

The Headhunter wonders if he is seeking employment—why
else would he be at the fair? He cannot begin to imagine
what position might be appropriate for this individual defying
categorization, whose insouciance clashes with the professional
aspirations of the fairgoers.

An idea comes to him in a flash: this man could play the
Unhappy Hedonist!

This poem is set in the middle of the collection and serves a centerpiece that showcases de la Torre’s many talents as a poet.  The image of the headhunter lurking in the bushes underscores the ridiculous name given to workers whose role is recruitment.  She also brings us back to Kippenberger the artist whose installment is the specific inspiration for her strange job fair setting.  As the headhunter marks his “victim,” he proceeds to psychoanalyze him so that he can slot him into the company role that will suit him best, even if he has to invent a new job title.  It appears that the theater will now have an “Unhappy Hedonist” which position reminds us of the absurd titles that corporations have used to give a façade of importance in order to attract the highest quality of candidates for jobs which no one can clearly identify.  As I was reading this poem I kept thinking about the vague names we have for jobs even in schools. For instance, we no longer have the specific title of “Librarian” but instead we now have the difficult-to-pinpoint position of  “Media Specialist.”

When one does finally land what he or she thinks is a desirable job, reality and disappointment often set in as we see in this Case Study poem. It is interesting to note that Kafka’s working title for his novel was “The Man Who Disappeared” which is fitting for the theme of an oppressive and hard-to-break-free-from system of working life where few stand out among the corporate crowd.  The tone of this piece is markedly sadder than others in the collection:

On the first day of a new job, after quitting a highly desirable
one, the subject experiences genuine befuddlement when asked
to contribute $20 for a colleague’s taxi fare from the airport.

The day’s obligations include putting documents in boxes and
loading them into a coworker’s trunk. It soon becomes ap-
parent that the subject occupies the lowest rung of the bureau-
cracy and that, other than this odd version of paperwork, there
is nothing of consequence at stake.

The most clever and thought-provoking pieces were those that explored the idea of how we use furniture and space in an office.  An entire thriving industry has been devoted to choosing, planning and fitting out offices to make workers more comfortable and more productive.  De la Torre’s poems exude a particular tension between open and confined space, and productive and unproductive workers and ask us to think about whether or not a different arrangement of space truly makes people more active and engaged members of an office hierarchy.  In one of the poems entitled “Yes or No,” she writes:

So that personnel can move around and up and down
and function as vertical machines
office landscapes are sectioned into action offices.

It is suboptimal to give vertical machines space to move
around and up and down.

Flexible offices are not cost-effective.

Furniture in action offices is placed orthogonally.

Plants are replaced by partitions on three sides.

Action offices become cubicles.

Action offices become dead offices.

Plants enliven offices in pictures.

Living offices are safe environments for plants.

These poems force us to question whether or not it really matters how we arrange our furniture, our partitions, or our plants.  There is still a hierarchy which must be obeyed in a workplace environment or all will fall into chaos.  This collection uses several descriptions of chairs as a metaphor for the constraint that must be endured when we walk into an office regardless of  how the space is used or how it is decorated.    De la Torre poems include “The View from an Aeron Chair,” “The View from the Folding Chair,” “The View from a Womb Chair” and so on.  My favorite view from a chair is the Dodo Chair.   The Dodo is a swivel armchair, easily converted into a lounger, which is ergonomically designed for comfort.  But the poet uses a reference to the extinct bird by the same name to satirize the practicality of a comfortable chair in an office where not a single moment of rest is allowed.

A mutable shape stating that downtime hasn’t gone the way of the Dodo.

Yet the days of sitting around seem extinct.

Now it’s all go-go.  No need to go into it; who doesn’t know the feeling?

The dodo maybe?  Its temporality is other.

Its inability to adapt rendered it obsolete.

It is ironic that in an age in which we are working longer hours, are more stressed out than ever that we spend so much time in fitting out our offices with just the right type of chairs and configurations of chairs.  De la Torre sums it up best when she writes, “The office chair’s revolution is an oxymoron.”

This is one of the most clever, well-written, descriptive and hilarious collection of poems I have read this year.  For anyone looking for a new and innovative book of poems for poetry month then this one comes highly recommended by me.

Read an interview with Monica de la Torre about her inspiration for this collection at Lit Hub: http://lithub.com/monica-de-la-torre-on-corporatese-and-the-oppression-of-fancy-chairs/

About the Author:

Mónica de la Torre is co-author of the book Appendices, Illustrations & Notes (Smart Art Press) with artist Terence Gower, and co-editor, with Michael Wiegers, of Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poetry (Copper Canyon Press). She edited and translated the volume Poems by Gerardo Deniz, published by Lost Roads and Taller Ditoria, and has translated numerous other Spanish-language poets. Born and raised in Mexico City, she moved to New York in 1993. She has been the poetry editor of The Brooklyn Rail since 2001 and is pursuing a PhD in Spanish Literature at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in journals including Art on Paper, BOMB, Bombay Gin, Boston Review, Chain, Circumference, Fence, Mandorla, Review: Latin American Literature and Arts, and Twentysix. Talk Shows was her first book of original poetry in English.

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The Ear and the Heart Know: An Interview with Translator Alexander Booth

Alexander Booth is a writer and translator who lives in Berlin.  A recipient of a 2012 PEN Heim Translation Fund Grant for translations from the German poetry of Lutz Seiler, his poems and translations have appeared online and in print at Asymptote, Dear Sir, FreeVerse, Konundrum and Modern Poetry in Translation. In addition, when he lived in Rome he kept a weblog on (mostly) Rome in literature and Roman literature, Misera e stupenda città. His work can also be found on his website Wordkunst. His translation of Lutz Seiler’s collection of poetry entitled in English in field latin was published in 2016 by Seagull Books.  I conducted this interview via e-mail in March and April of 2017.

Melissa Beck (MB): How did you come to translate Lutz Seiler’s collection of poetry for publication by Seagull Books?

Alexander Booth (AB):I began translating Seiler’s poetry in 2011, just a few days after first reading his work. I was still living in Rome at the time and was in the old Herder Bookshop on Piazza Montecitorio and picked up his first collection of poetry for Suhrkamp, pech & blende. It was electrifying. I read the whole thing through on my bus ride home. I felt such an affinity to the work that I knew I had to try. And so I looked for his latest, which was in felderlatein (in field latin), ordered it, and got started. After having some of those first translations published by the UK journal Modern Poetry in Translation rather early on, I decided to keep going and then applied for a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant, which, to my great surprise, I was awarded in 2012. And from there I went on to complete the whole collection. However, being a complete unknown and not having any connections to any publishers at the time, it was impossible for me to get through to anyone. As you can well imagine, poetry in translation is a much harder sell than a novel in translation, indeed almost impossible, and I was attempting to do so completely on my own. Be that as it may, around the end of 2014 (I’d relocated to Germany the previous year), I got an email from Lutz (whom I had gotten to know by then) and one from Nora Mercurio, Suhrkamp’s foreign rights manager, saying that they had exciting news: the wonderful and wonderfully unexpected gift that Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books was interested in taking on the manuscript! I couldn’t believe it. I really had more or less given up on finding in field latin a home anywhere. And now here we are in 2017 and I’m working on my fourth book for Seagull, which still surprises me when I think about it. I am very lucky, humbled, and honored to be, and to have been, able to work with such great people.

MB: What in particular about Seiler’s poetry compelled you to translate it?

AB: Well, again, I felt such an immediate affinity to his whole approach, his musicality, his eye, and felt that it just had to be available to an Anglophone audience and, rather selfishly too, that my own poems might benefit from doing the work; furthermore, I wanted to live in that world for a spell, there was something there I needed to touch, something there seemed familiar somehow. Something perhaps in that “concentrated absence” as he calls it. It is indeed an extremely rare occurrence to read something and physically feel it surge through you. Its singular song. Reading Seiler’s poems was one of those moments. “The ear knows” as the poet George Oppen said. Here I’d add the heart too.

MB: You have a lovely mention of your mother in the acknowledgements. How did she influence your decision to become a translator? Do you work with her often?

AB: That is kind of you to say, thank you. Well, I never really made any conscious decision to be a translator, as is the case with most translators I think, it just kind of happened. In fact, as a child, many people said that I had no real talent for foreign languages, and, to be honest, I don’t think I showed all that much interest either! That changed with my discovery of Italian, however, and, in particular, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s translations of a selection of poems by the great Pier Paolo Pasolini. Some years later I began to translate poetry on my own, poets with whom I felt an affinity, poets I felt might help me with my own work (especially when, to paraphrase the poet Charles Wright, I was in between poems) or just plain excited me (for example, Hölderlin, the later Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Friederike Mayröcker, Sandro Penna); then, for extra money, I would do academic translations. Moving to Germany at the end of 2013, for various reasons I found myself doing more and more translation work and now find myself even doing novels!

But to return to my mother: over the years we have developed a lovely relationship through my work with some rather challenging writers; in Seiler’s case, she helped a lot with some of the rural and/or East German expressions/language that has remained fairly similar over time (my mother originally comes from Upper Silesia, in Prussia, and grew up in the country as her father was a forester; Lutz Seiler also comes from a rural environment). She is such an inquisitive person and loves to have me ask her questions and over the last few years in particular, since the death of my father, we have developed an even closer relationship through my translations. In fact, having been a witness to my work over the last fifteen years or more, she says she actually reads differently now, thinks about the written word differently, which is an immense compliment. When I get to visit her in the States or she comes back here to Europe, we get the tea ready, then she sits down with her crosswords or journals or what-have-you, and I get to translating and when something comes up, I ask her. Of course I send emails too if need be. In ways, through translating, I was able to get closer to my mother and to some of her interior landscape and, I think, she was able to get to closer to me and mine. That in itself makes the process worthwhile, no? How many people get that kind of opportunity? And it is this aspect of translation, this sometimes disorienting, sometimes rather unsettling sense of inhabitation (and, at times, possession), that intensity, that remains one of the most intriguing and rewarding aspects of the whole process for me. I hope it is so for the reader too.

MB: Are there one or two poems in the collection that you found particularly difficult to translate into English? Are there any pieces of the poems that you felt got lost in the translation?

AB: Oh goodness, yes, there are a few and there are certainly some things that got lost. I think with someone like Seiler, in particular the poetic nexus of individual words, certain phrases, their echoes are so numerous and reverberate not only throughout German culture and history but much of Seiler’s other work that there is no possible way they can be carried over. Furthermore, the point/port of entry into some of the poems is very difficult to locate indeed. So, in the end, I added some notes where I thought it might help and simply let it go where I saw little point.

MB: Is there anything particularly interesting or surprising that you found out about Seiler as you were translating his poetry?

AB: I learned that he was a Pink Floyd fan when he was younger! That was a real shock. Sorry, in all seriousness: learning that one of his favorite poets was Ernst Meister (Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick have done excellent English translations of his work for Wave Books) certainly made a lot of sense though, in the end, I’m not sure if that surprised me too much. All the same, it’s an insight that helps to explain a fair amount, even though Seiler is a very different poet.

On a purely personal note that doesn’t really have anything to do with his poems, however, (though you’ll find an allusion to it in one of his stories), I was surprised to learn over a beer with him that he had been a bartender at one of the first bars to appear in East Berlin after reunification, a basement bar near the Museum Island on Oranienburger Straße called Assel (pill bug – sadly, no longer there). Now, that was a bar I used to love to go to whenever I was in Berlin. It was a strange connection. One of those times you think: “Of course he did.” And to realize that he had been in Rome at the Villa Massimo at the same time I was still living there and had begun translating his poems. It seemed to me then that our work together was fated!

One thing I really like about Seiler’s work is that, the deeper you go into it, the more you see how all of it really is connected: all the poems are woven into one another and into the short stories and here and there into the novel and each sheds a certain light on the other. There is no sense whatsoever of “the writer of the poem” as distinct from Seiler. The personal is universal and, as continues to be said, most certainly political. All these fragments making up the greater narrative of the man himself and the time, the place, of which he is part.

MB: Can you discuss some of the current stylistic trends in contemporary German poetry and how Seiler embraces or rejects these trends?

AB: Well, to be rather reductive, it seems to me that there are more or less two poles here (though you could probably say as much for the States too): the quiet, “straightforward” narrative (when not “nature”) poem and a more “experimental”, what I’d be tempted to call a kind of “neo-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” sort of approach to writing. Maybe this will seem evasive or intentionally vague, but I don’t think Seiler explicitly embraces or rejects either nor would he be particularly interested in championing any one tendency over another; acknowledging and incorporating all of his—not only—poetic inheritances he has created his own subtle and singular style: at times dark, it is ecologically aware, haunted, highly personal, historical, syntactically strange, and uniquely lyrical. In short, it is undeniably his own. I don’t think there are too many poets, or writers in general actually, you could say that about today. Before you even reach the end of the first line you know you are in a Lutz Seiler poem.

MB: What translation projects are you currently working on?

AB: My translation of the Gunther Geltinger’s neo-Gothic, experimental novel Moor was published last month by Seagull Books and my translation of Friedrich Ani’s dark, psychological “crime” novel The Nameless Day will be coming out with them this winter. I’ve also just finished translating an art book for Suhrkamp called Berlin Heartbeats: Stories from the Wild Years, 1990-Present, which contains photographs and interviews with a number of important cultural figures from around the time of German reunification (Klaus Biesenbach, Frank Castorf, Sasha Walz, etc.). In addition, I am translating two poems for a trilingual anthology (Chinese – English – German) responding to a poem by the (late) American poet C.D. Wright being put together by the young poet Dong Li. I have also just begun translating a novel by the German-Iranian writer and Orientalist Navid Kermani, which is very interesting indeed, suffused as it is with references to and quotes from Persian poets such as Attar, Ibn Arabi, and Nizami. Quite a challenge. And last but not least, I am working here and there on a fascinating, experimental novel of “journal sentences” by the writer Jürgen Becker, an excerpt of which appeared in the latest issue of Chicago Review.

 

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Review: in field latin by Lutz Seiler translated by Alexander Booth

Lutz Seiler was born in the former East Germany in the Langenberg district of Gera, Thuringia.  He first had a career as a skilled construction worker as both a bricklayer and carpenter.  It was during his service in the National People’s Army that he first took an interest in poetry and literature. Since 1997 he has been the literary director and custodian at the Peter Huchel Museum in Wilhelmshorst.  He has won numerous awards for his writing including the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for his short story volume Turksib.

in field latin, published by Seagull Books in 2016, is Seiler’s debut volume of poetry translated into English.  Divided into seven sections which include between one and eleven poems, this collection gives us an interesting glimpse into life in the former East Germany via lyrics that describe landscapes, personal reflections and ghosts.

The most striking images that Seiler weaves throughout this collection are those of nature; in the first poem, entitled “Departure” he invites us into his bucolic world:

bed against window, the trip
into the wood, ever more softly
shifting gears & sleep: every

dream begins uphill, at the fence
onto the street where
someone squats like you, where

the resinous poppy with its
capsules clings to your ears, where
above already blossom edges have

gone to grey…leaf
after leave put into place
& uncompleted sent away.

The short, startling lines in this first poem are typical for the entire collection where images of reality and dreams are mingled and blurred.  His poetry is both personal reflection but also captures the universal feeling of calm while walking in the woods in autumn.  In “autumn” he writes:

is silence & custom. autumn
is rake, wood, is a mild
chill upon the eyes &

unexpected gooseflesh.  is also
the good old ready-to-fight feeling, soft, secret, skull-still
designs maturing.  the leaves all burnt, sand

still warm beneath the ashes, you
feel it now upon your hand: something
wants to flee &something never leave…

The ghosts of the past, both personal and political, also pervade his poetry.  The phrase “all the wasted time” in the following poem entitled “the stay” in particular stood out to me as an interesting commentary on the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of his country:

one evening they came
the dead of my house
back from the train-station.  one

after the other, with
balled fists, reminiscent
of tulips in their

nigh-reserve, reminiscent,
in the long being-dead, of all
the wasted time.

In a poem entitled “culmitzsch” Seiler weaves together images of landscapes, ghosts and life in the former East Germany.  The translator includes some excellent and helpful notes in the back of this edition and for this poem he explains that Culmitzch was a village in the GDR whose inhabitants were forced to move in order to make room for one of that former country’s largest uranium mines.  Seiler’s poem about this abandoned place is chilling:

in the evening the sheep go rusty
over the wasted land, birds
as if snowed therein & darkened…

only under the rubble
the farmyards are still warm.  the spoons
there by the spoons, the polish
by the boots & that little door
to the boot-room which moves you
to tears…

As always, Seagull Books has brought into English translation a fascinating collection of poetry.  I had the opportunity to interview Alexander Booth, the translator of this collection which can be read here.

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