October 2015 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

A monthly feature that looks at books of and about poetry.

October 2015 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri


Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri

INSOMNIA by Linda Pastan. W.W. Norton & Co. 93 pages.

Tory Dent: Collected Poems. The Sheep Meadow Press. 376 pages.

The Unworn Necklace by Roberta Beary. Snapshot Press, Great Britain. 78 pages.

Spirit Hovering by Nancy Arbuthnot. Tate Publishing.76 pages.

Romanian Poems of Paul Celan, translated by Nina Cassian. The Sheep Meadow Press. 85 pages.

Vise and Shadow by Peter Balakian. The Univ. of Chicago Press. 269 pages.

The Four-legged Girl by Diane Seuss. Graywolf Press. 73 pages.

Nothing to Say and Saying it by Walter Cybulski. Black Kettle Books. 139 pages.

Impossible Object by Lisa Sewell. The Word Works. 86 pages.

We Were the People Who Moved by David Ebenbach. Tebot Bach. 74 pages.

Charles Bukowski on Cats, edited by Abel Debritto. Ecco/Harper Collins. 117 pages.

Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles, 2015. Ecco/Harper Collins. 279 pages.

I Must Be Living Twice; New & Selected Poems by Eileen Myles. Ecco/Harper Collins. 353 pages.

Two Outstanding Anthologies

The Vivisection Mambo, 125 poems of the New-Neo Realist School, edited by Lolita Lark. Mho& Mho Works. 202 pages.

Lummox (number Four) edited by R.D. Armstrong. Lummox Press. 224 pages (plus 23 pages of bios!)

INSOMNIA by Linda Pastan. W.W. Norton& Co. 93 pages.

For those of us who are Pastan fans, it’s Christmas and High Holiday in October. Each Pastan book has its own gravitational pull, words strong and true, as if “bird” “snow” “tree” had never been said or heard before.  I always think her newest book is the Zenith one. 

How should we talk about poets who uphold language for us — poets who don’t lose faith in their own sights and insights, doubling down so they can make them ours? On first reading, Linda Pastan’s work appears to be a happiness shared with nature and personal relationships. All that, yes, yet it’s about what we’re in danger of losing. This is the kinetic quality of Pastan’s poetry, calmed by lyricism. Do not let musicality distract you from the courage it takes — like Dickinson — to describe the ordinary day never seen before — deepened by its temporality.

Each poem has a unique and particular frame. One poem might be a glance seeing a bird disguised as a leaf; and the next quite different: a list counting sheep, until sleep comes by counting all the “experts on the subject of sleep.”   Pastan likes mythology and uses it (Dido and Aeneas, Cassandra —) She loves literature and paintings, also used as sources. And of ”THE POETS” she writes:  “They are farmers, really — / hoeing and planting…” ending  with “…their own muscular// beanstalk rocketing skyward/ from a single bean.”

And how do we burnish our oldest image, the moon, any better than Pastan. In “COSMOLOGY” she starts “Someone has spilled the moon/ all over the trees;// someone is cutting down the trees,/ branch by forked branch — // soon there will be nothing left/ but kindling…this moonlight which lies everywhere/ like a beautiful torn shroud:// the illumination of dreams…Is it the moon itself I fear,/ in too many pieces now…”  Visually beautiful, the poem transforms itself several times: from serenity, to introspection, to fear, to tentative love. That’s a lot of psychological action contained within 11 couplets.

The manifestations of nature are not meant to be descriptive. They’re reflections where there’s no future and no past but the very moment we see what the poet sees. Sometimes the present is about mercy: blackbirds making noise, rainstorms; and most often an emotional reconciliation. In “ELEGY” she states “Our final dogwood leans/ over the forest floor// offering berries/ to the birds, the squirrels.// It’s a relic/ of the days when dogwoods// flourished — creamy lace in April, Spilled milk in May — //…”   Reading this I wondered how people who don’t write manage to find peace with the world. There’s much resolved in each poem.

I read this book as a meditation with its constant pulse, reminding us that the poet who never races with the clock has all the time she needs. Each poem holds clean spare lines. “Better than a meaningless story of a thousand words is a single word of deep meaning, which, when heard, produces peace.” (Buddha)

Remembering Stafford
On His Centennial 

When you said there was no such thing
as writer’s block if your standards
were low enough, everyone laughed
and I laughed too, but you meant it, didn’t you? 

The point is to follow the winding path
of words wherever it wants to take you, step
by step, ignoring the boulders, the barbed wire
fences, the rutted ditches choked with ragweed.

How complicated such simplicities are.
Forget the destination, you taught us,
forget applause; what matters is the journey.
And started one yourself, each morning.

Tory Dent: Collected Poems. The Sheep Meadow Press. 376 pages.

When this book arrived I caught my breath. It’s true. I stopped for a moment at the sight of Tory Dent’s book. The first thought: thank goodness Sheep Meadow had the will and sense to bring her three books together. The next thought was wondering how I could read it, knowing I’d feel what I’d feel. There’s no one like Dent in vehemence or power. Sylvia Plath is her shadow sister. Tory Dent is the standardbearer, beautiful and fierce, living and dying of a disease, denizen of the country in between.

I met Tory Dent and her husband Sean Harvey at the Library of Congress when she was reading her poetry. I think HIV, Mon Amour had just been published. These people were the epitome of an intelligent caring marriage. Nowhere in the book’s intros do I read that Tory’s HIV was a mishap of a medical procedure, yet it was. Maybe that’s not thought to be important, how the disease descends on a person, but nevertheless it’s a fact. I loved Tory and Sean at first meeting. Tory Dent was already in the throes of her suffering. She wasn’t able to do a radio interview at that time, but was unbelievably generous to arrange for my conversation via telephone from her sickbed. She read to the world while losing her sight on the way to her dying.

This book is the ultimate experience, intellectually calculated — not a howl — but craftsmanship by a master. Her books are titled What Silence Equals; HIV, Mon Amour; and, Black Milk.  HIV, Mon Amour is 98 pages. I had remembered, more than anything, Dent’s longing to express her sexual love fully, prevented by the disease and physical restraints. This is the path to the truth of the book. There are 35 prose poems written while fighting blindness. How a poet manages metrics at this time is an unknowable feat, yet she forges through every day. We feel her working. We feel her sounds; we see her language, her only ally, rescuing her, line by line.

There’s a preface by then husband Sean Harvey, an introduction by Greg Miller on the poems, and another fine piece of writing as afterword, “A Poetics of Resistance…” by Nicole Cooley. These comprehensive pieces reset our thinking because comprehension is needed to fathom the marriage of this material to its maker.

This poet was not a friend but a brief encounter, yet I’ll always miss her. The injustice of suffering didn’t begin with AIDS, Read the 6-page poem “Peter The Great” detailing daily emotional torture at the hands of an unnatural mother.” …Your hand came down on me so hard it knocked me out of bed./ I couldn’t understand except that I was bad…”

What does this book herald? That the spirit’s stronger than the body? I’m not sure. Maybe more simply — in the circumstance of writing toward dying — Tory Dent has no equal.

From Black Milk the poem “Time on Fire” begins:

Again I drive my pencil point as if to make unlined paper bleed,
drawing out of its naive and lily-like dimensions
the history of its pulp, the history of its leaves.
by virtue of this reconstruction, both minute and grandiose,
I seek out as an end to its means some kind of absolution… 

              And a poem in its entirety:

Beyond Belief

Hateful ferns like harlots
Tease the sky where dreams have melded for centuries. 

White caps, driven, dive forward, a school of dolphins
obedient to the militant mum-faced blue, tearstreaked
at the most appropriate moments as if sympathetic to us like one of us:
purposeful yet confused.
Alternating self-flagellating and self-forgiving. 

True in my prayers I’ll confess my atheism
and actually believe in an atheistic god whose understanding
would bridge all my conflict.
I’ll find the manifest Christ handsome and rationalize my attraction
as an admittance that allows for more of an ingenious devotion,
bolstering my beliefs with twigs and cotton balls and poems and foam rubber
and most of all desires that expand organically like yeast at my acknowledgement. 

Desires like dolphins, driven
Obedient  tearstreaked, sexy.

The Unworn Necklace by Roberta Beary. Snapshot Press, Great Britain. 78 pages.

Beary holds the Haiku Society of America Award; and was finalist, Poetry Society of America.

We all know the adage ‘I don’t have time to write a short poem.” Beary does. And it takes time. The haiku, the essence, the economic form. These poems have to be portholes. Beary’s collection of Haiku tell many stories in a book that holds, maybe, a total of 200 words. Each fragment on each page illuminates a large theme: ”rainy season/again he tells me/ she means nothing” or ”talking divorce/he pours his coffee/then mine.” I can amplify these into a scene from Ibsen and not make them any better. There’s a congenial tone to even bitter truths in Beary’s work because each word is burnished to a shine, and no matter what they say, it seems beautiful.

What is special about this collection is the constant progression of thought, ideas widening, becoming expanded from simple moments of 5 to 10 words, ultimately describing conditions between speaker and parents, speaker and children, all relationships crystallized into little statuaries on the page that go very deep emotionally. “ his death notice…/the get-well card/ still in my briefcase.” 

autumn breeze

the new smell

of my red jacket 

Spirit Hovering by Nancy Arbuthnot. Tate Publishing. 76 pages.

From life as an awakening teen to another life as mother to son, these cameos of time and moments are character-expressed poems. The truth of the poem is the truth of the character as transformations occur in the smallest incident. Arbuthnot in her life and work illuminates humanity. There’s an almost Zen feeling in the writing, a dismissal of self-importance, a tried truth standing there — take it and cherish it, or not —

I Know That You Heard Me

John 11:41

I know that you heard me
I warn my son, keys in hand
impatient, turned to go 

I know that you heard me
I practice to the closed door
recalling nights I called out 

and my mother brought me a glass
of water, my father sat on my bed
and hushed away nightmares 

I know that you heard me
I say again
as though someone heard 

Romanian Poems of Paul Celan, translated by Nina Cassian. The Sheep Meadow Press. 85 pages.

Celan is the “poet’s poet” and luckily Cassian was in her own right a fine Romanian poet. She intros the book in 1998, “as a close friend and contemporary of Paul Celan” presenting English versions of eight poems “she struggled with.” Equally interesting as the poetry is Cassian’s “Notes on Romanian Poetry,” a body of work entirely unknown to me, and most gratefully received.


Dreams, morning glory of dusk-dawn. In the sinking
of the water-lily, the lake’s asleep in its bed.
Black sister of him who sets a crown on your head
come to freeze the dreams with your silences — 

the jagged sky of snow on your temples,
a blossoming cloud for your eyelash to borrow.
You, lost in much simpler clothes, are laughing:
is it autumn in the walnut grove? is it tomorrow? 

You don’t wear your peasant blouse embroidered
with shadow and starlit spiders right out of the loom.
Gold sleeps again, the fog moves on . . .
To whom shall I give the dew, to whom the crown? 

Paul Celan translated by Nina Cassian

Vise and Shadow by Peter Balakian. The Univ. of Chicago Press. 269 pages.

These essays are “the lyric imagination, Poetry, Art, Culture.” The preface explains vise and shadow as two parts of this imagination. The book came out months ago, and just because I haven’t finished it is no reason to hold back the good news. Balakian is a first class scholar and critic and his 12 chapters are diverse, i.e.,: Poetry as Civilization: Primo Levi and Dante at Auschwitz; The Poem as History; Arshile Gorky: From the Armenian Genocide to the Avant-Garde; Theodore Roethke’s Lost Son and the Confessional Era; Bob Dylan in Suburbia, etc. You can see there’s reason to pick this up in sections — do you feel like tacos or ice cream — I love the conversational tone of this writing, spoken, with a genuine true-to-oneself authority — something it takes the most brilliant minds to achieve. Here are the burdens of literature. Here is the perpetual wandering of ideas that have found a good home. Every chapter is an awakening. Every reflection, something not heard before. The book is illustrated with six Rauschenberg “plates.”

From Chapter 5, “Hart Crane’s Broken Tower”:

It would be a stretch to call “The Broken Tower” what Helen
Vendler has called “a last look” or a poet’s final encounter with life
on the brink of death.  But the poem was an inadvertent last look.
Although Crane doesn’t seem to have premeditated his suicide,
He was self-destructive; his suicidal demons were never far away,
and in his last episode of implosion he grappled with suicidal
impulses.  If this is not a self-conscious last poem, it was a last
poem, and one that made a grand reach for the life force—in its
transcendent vision and sensual embrace—while acknowledging
the world.  It was a rare moment of personal release, poetic
invention, and a beautiful and risky foray into the  joy of love and the
dissolution of self.

four-legged girl by Diane Seuss. Graywolf Press. 73 pages.

Put on your seatbelts. It’s a wild ride. Seuss is a Hunger Games poet if ever there were one. I’m not sure who the enemy is but the stories are extraordinary — including a past recalling the underbelly of New York with Bukowski, and with a heroin addict boyfriend while writing porn — but Seuss makes the kaleidoscope magically readable because Seuss is a true original with a grip on real emotion, vulnerability, anger, defiance and pain, shaking it up to the frivolity of poetry. She’s sassy all right and dares us to call her on it. That would mean nothing in itself — what counts is a maintainable line, a coherent structure and a mature craft housing this shock value. What Seuss writes is hypnotizing. She does it with free form and strict internal rhythms. Were it not for our Puritan culture, she’d probably be a household name — that’s in a world where poets actually could be, of course.

These poems are a strong example of a poet who’s free. She acts like a bad girl but she can’t escape the honor she’ll receive in her carefully generated and complex lines. She’s transformative. Pour yourself a glass of wine and hitch yourself to a star.

My pants are disintegrating.  Yes,

my bright pink pants. Bright pink, black tiger stripes.
The pants on which I built my new life.
Pants I’m known for. Foundational. Infamous. 

In one day, holes. Old hungers, yawning griefs.
Split incisions. Indecisions. Those pants, sunset
tiger striping the sky. The pink so domestic, 

like girl-curtains, a canopy bed. The black
so inkish, so woman writer, so Cleopatra’s
mascara. The pink so Sappho’s vaginal whorl, 

so Of Women Born. The black so Era of Poetess
Suicides. So Tia Maria and Seconals.
It was all so balanced, so joyous, so pitifully bifurcated, 

naively bi-curious, so woozy, sleazy, back before
my pants acted all napalmed, all flesh-eating
bacteria, all sloughed-off aesthetic, all glory holed. 

Nothing to Say and Saying it by Walter Cybulski. Black Kettle Books. 139 pages.

There’s a bit of Sophocles and a lot of Mark Twain in Walter Cybulski. To read this book is to take a trip down the 21st century looking backward at our feet while stumbling forward. He’s basically a serious historian and begins his poems in a family album, widening to old neighborhoods, past landscapes — populating his world with a think tank of characters with stories and threads of remembrance.

 Cybulski keeps the American dream alive. He has a new look at emigrants in a poem “Contributions to the Forgetting,” stating in one stanza: ” …What allegiance do we owe you-/you who become strangers to your past/ we who are strangers to your future? // What names do we give you now? /Homeland that sent them here/ and left them behind…” yet this is not a poem of nostalgia; it’s a hard look at what came and passed; and how history in human form is transient, and whatever the origins of rough passage all that’s left of us is”…A cardboard carton or two somewhere in the heap/ of lawn furniture tires rugs sporting equipment—/artifacts of remembrance safe for the time being…”   There’re also poems about “history history” and great figures, as well as the average man who Cybulski loves to make larger.

I especially like the poem “Sorry” where the poet apologizes for everything from “the dust under the stove” to “the gasoline engines” that “have bruised the sky.” He even ends one stanza with “(Sorry to have to continue this on the next page.)” There’s plenty to smile about in this poem but there’s a real view of our difficult meanderings with a  truth that ends ” Ah, my family, my friends, my acquaintances, my colleagues,/ I am sorry there is such an abundance of sorrow/ that burdens our hearts and changes nothing.” The nice thing about Cybulski — and you can tell by the book’s title — he really has no grand design. He doesn’t pretend to make poetic accountabilities. He just unlocks the door of his vision and looks at the house, the street, the nation, and the world. Their possibilities for survival end up as poetry. It feels like he’s always surprising himself while doing this. But whatever thought he’s pursuing seems to fit all our lives, not heroizing, not mournful, just being humorous, realistic, and kind. Who could argue with that?

Uncle Florian 

In one of the legendary wedding photographs,
taken at the end of the wedding reception
after the hired band had called it quits,
at the yellowed keys of an upright piano
on the stage of the old church hall. 

Surrounded by smiling faces,
like Chico Marx on the deck of the steamship
In Night At The Opera, he pounds out
the Hundred Horsepower Polka with such intensity
that the whole world shakes with the power of his music.

You knew then and there
this was one of the moments
poetry would be looking for,
if poetry was in the neighborhood. 

Afterward, many more  guests
than were actually photographed

imagined themselves to be present
in that luminous circle of faces,

eager to be counted among the stars
of the newly discovered constellation.

Impossible Object by Lisa Sewell. The Word Works. 86 pages.

Kinetics in poetry is about connections, invisible bridges that make the reader jump to new awareness. Lisa Sewell is an expert at sharing transformations, yet making sure we survive the leap. She writes of literature, history, war, loss, love — the usual things — but by her talented hand she brings a new consciousness to her purpose. The poems each have a morality that cannot be consoled. Here’s the gift: We’re left with the result of Sewell’s drive, desire, ramifications, sustainability — we’re drenched in the soldier’s blood and her father’s temperament. We not only share her dream, but we own its strange events, not admire, but own. This is a powerful thing for a writer to impose on a reader.

Sewell is all impact, and how she does this is by an indirect light that  hits dead center, like those laser artists that start from a distance to arrive at our present location. The best is this; each page is not an emotional continuation of the previous pages. She has the necessary complexity to write each poem as a great teacher of a life lesson never told or heard before. This is a necessary book for poets who want to deepen their thought and reach for more in their poems.

The Beautiful Room Is Empty

Awake again to watch the moon slide back
into the hills, to hear the grackles screech
with the sheer effrontery that thrills a timid
heart, I thought of the way one man I loved
could nod off anywhere, dropping fast,
and how his sleep seeped toward me, a heat
that shushed the insomniac gear and prattle
of night.  In the near light before his sleep
strapped me in, under my gaze, in this creature
half-natural but half-invented, I conceived
a tenderness in the pause and unleash of his breathing,
desire in the steady pulse at his neck.  And I believe
I would have suffered again his indifference
to eat whatever it was that leached from his skin,
to feel it latch on and hold me under until morning. 

We Were the People Who Moved by David Ebenbach. Tebot Bach. 74 pages.

The speaker begins with life in our transient society; and then makes each poem bring itself home to us. Ebenbach does this with children, wife, his belly (he’s funny too.) Pittsburgh, and gutters — he’s king of an (elevated) everyday world. The last poem in the book is “Autogeography,”an accumulation of all the roads converging within — an aggregate of houses, towns, YMCA’s, pickup trucks. This is a powerful perception of America with intensity of language and lightness of tone. How does Ebenbach achieve balance? Diction, word choice, and goodwill. Some poems are hyper realism but beneath language is genuine emotional substance.

It’s a pleasure to read a poet whose spoken speech appears to be everyday-talk; but each word is from thought, and each train of thought becomes movement; and that’s what makes poetic bounty.

Life is a puzzle of places, weather, windshields and birdshit, schools, students and ice storms. And these come together as an elaborate American mythology — the story of a male/poet/teacher/family man. We could put this book in a time capsule to show “how it was” — and how a writer has transformed cement into trees and poems, changing an intellectual life to a welcome read.

We Are All On the Edge of Something

Your house, there on the street
that bends like an elbow, its
sleeve the first trees of a larger
wood; this train that runs along
a drop to the road.  Miles now
from my father’s home, the city.
The buildings start to crack.
Even the sun, there at the
fingertips of the winter-ready
trees—it stays, as if afraid
to be let go. 

Charles Bukowski on Cats, edited by Abel Debritto. Ecco/Harper Collins. 117 pages.

Two years ago I interviewed Linda Lee Bukowski, widow of Charles, and at that time she had nine cats. It was no surprise then to receive this book about Bukowski’s life with felines and it’s a funny, fabulous, blustering song of love. Bukowski is as raucous as ever but never more profound in addressing his ragged followers.

A Reader

my cat shit in my archive

he climbed into my Golden State Sunkist

orange box

and he shit on my poems

my original poems

saved for the university archives.


that one-eared fat black critic

he signed me off. 

Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles. 2015. Ecco/Harper Collins. 279 pages.

This novel by Myles has just been reissued from its 1994 premiere; a good idea to accompany her New & Selected Poems. Her memoir shows growing up Catholic and moving to New York in the ‘70s to become a poet; the book’s as bold as I remember, poets and artists on booze, drugs, and sex. It’s the story of New York’s demi-monde artists, the Warhol brand, prowling the world in search of themselves. The events are free wheeling, mostly illegal, and look like fun (if a trifle unhygienic) but if you missed this book, now’s your chance. It’s a story of a little Catholic girl coming into her own as a lesbian woman (with the book’s grand finale in bed at the Chelsea Hotel, as the beginning of a true identity). The extraordinary writing is from a momentum and rush of detail, honesty, and the whiplash of words. This is one woman who does not need drugs to write.

I Must Be Living Twice; New & Selected Poems by Eileen Myles. Ecco/Harper Collins. 353 pages.

These are beautiful and wonderful poems — vertical streams of thought — the size of pocket combs a la Kay Ryan in appearance — filled with/by authenticity. Myles’ observations (she likes trees) are regenerative each page, even peaceful sometimes; Her new work shows a woman taking responsibility for craft, living in the present moment, making the difficult music of longing/ aching sound sweet. Her total works celebrate living a life of poetry. She begins with new poems and then selections from books, 1978, 1981, 1982, 1991, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2007, 2012 with an interesting prose epilogue. There’s other prose in small quantities interspersed — I like most “The poet” beginning.  “I made myself a poet because it was the first thing I really loved…the lines are designs for something/ real, how much space around the slender bars I bend and shape in the name of my world…” She ends “...We are the liars and thieves, we are the women we are the women I am full of holes because you are. I am/ the only saintly man in town. Don’t be afraid to be feminine. A girl on a rowboat, full of holes. She saw words shooting through.”

The poems are highly personal and I believe there’s morality in ordering events and emotion with precision and respect. The epilogue “TWICE” begins repeating a poem from her new work, in front of the book. I had bookmarked that poem, and found, there it is again “WHAT TREE AM I WAITING”: That whole part of the world/ where I won’t go any-/more/ that whole separation/ that I won’t feel/ high in this house/ in this hemisphere/ in this artificial light/ that is artificial/ in the earliest morning; dark/ in pages and pens/ in an unfamiliar bed/  in the foot curl/ furniture/ each rumble/ when morning comes/ and it’s still morning/ and it’s still night/ I married a dead girl/ we were born in her/ bloom…”

The prose following the rest of this poem is by our same Chelsea girl, now 66 years old, with a smoother narrative and a greater understanding of word placement. “If you want to be a writer, write 100 stories,” we tell our students. And she did — still rocking like the star she was. 

Two Outstanding Anthologies

The Vivisection Mambo, 125 poems of the New-Neo Realist School, edited by Lolita Lark. Mho & Mho Works. 202 pages.

The book  “…pairs old experimental verse with the new.” Pound, Ginsberg, Celan, Larkin — (25 oldies) with 100 new writers. This is a gorgeous book. Letter press. Thick lineny paper. Such an eclectic inspired testimony to what Lark calls “gently ironic voices.” There are poems translated in Spanish and, the editor proudly notes the large collection of women writers and Latinos represented. And look at the title of this compendium. Who could resist taking it on the trolley wherever you go?

Lummox (number Four) edited by R.D. Armstrong. Lummox Press. 224 pages (plus 23 pages of bios!)

Let us now praise the editor who burns the oil alone in California wondering how he’s going to get out one more volume of almost 100 new poets. Yet Armstrong does, without foundations, institutions, grants or an official imprimatur. This is how American literature was first founded in publications like this and in small press journals from a time honored tradition carried forth by the strong of heart. Also Lummox is damn good reading. Here’s another title only the true individualist could imagine. Besides poetry, we have art, interviews, photos. If you want to know the depth and the breadth of what’s happening, pick up a copy.

“Goodbye world,” I’m carrying these both under my arm during October.

Grace Cavalieri produces of “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress.” Her latest book is a memoir, Life Upon The Wicked Stage (New Academia/Scarith, 2015.)

Review copies should be sent to:

Washington Independent Review of Books 
7029 Ridge Road 
Frederick, MD 21702


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