June 2015 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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


By Grace Cavalieri

A Clearance by Fiona Wilson. Sheep Meadow Press. 75 pp.

The Word Kingdom in the Word Kingdom by Noah Eli Gordon. Brooklyn Arts Press. 151 pp.

Kaleidoscope by Tina Barr. Iris Press. 84 pp.

Archives of the Air by John Morgan. Salmon Poetry (Ireland.) 67 pp.

Garden of Rain by Mike Maggio. Kelsay Books. 61 pp.

Disappearing Act by Saundra Rose Maley. Dryad Press. 69 pp.

Fortune’s Favor: Scott In Antarctica by Kim Roberts. Poetry Mutual Press. 45 pp. (Book includes historical photographs.)

Crimes Against Birds by Denton Loving. Main Street Rag Publishing Company. 63 pp.

Why God is A Woman by Nin Andrews. Boa Editions. 88 pp.

Count the Waves by Sandra Beasley. W.W. Norton. 96 pp.

Shirim, A Jewish Poetry Journal, Guest Editor Merrill Leffler. 56 pp.

A Clearance by Fiona Wilson. Sheep Meadow Press. 75 pp.

Words that trigger other words – an electrifying personality without ego; free-spirited; free falling; a voice never heard before – true to herself— Fiona Wilson. I not only read this book, I studied it, rearranging the written elements so I can see how she does it. In “Urban:” Lights, like poppies spread, /across the dark, up Tenth—// Snow. A moment said/ (like falling in a river?)// Quick! A scarlet thread—/ (uh-oh! Did you ever!)// And the day half-read—/ and the day half-read—// a spray of albumen/ on his black bedspread. It’s about conductivity, how a thought enters the crosshairs of energy and radiates onto the next one.

There’s mathematics of discovery in “Hummingbirds” where Wilson strips language of its lineage and sends it out shivering. Seven stanzas make up a relationship.

Stanza 1:” From my Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry/ three whispery sheets of airmail, each/ stamped with a stylish blue wing. Sincerely, sincerely—

Stanza 3: “The stilled flutter of postmarks. Handwriting. I am most/ intrigued by your reading list. You have gone into the matter/seriously and I am eager to learn the results of your research, / especially any applications to real life.

Stanza 5: “The pressure of your hand shaping each letter. / / your l: a quick stab. / Your i: yourself/ Your f: a tall hook. /Your e: caught mid-flight. “

Then the last stanza as if we’d forget the metaphor. “And the “whisper peep”? It’s simple, complex, wheeling/ squeak? / It’s a flit over water, an arrangement of sorts.”

Sometimes Wilson brings in poets as antecedents; sometimes she sounds like a 17th-century schoolgirl; sometimes a spurned lover; other times (rarely) autobiographical as in “Water Under the Bridge.” She analyzes the central activity of love’s muscle behavior. Page after page, simple, elegant and new.


The woman you were looking for,

when you stood on the rigs and runs,

listening to the que-wink, que-wink

of the peesies — did you find her?

Be quick. She’s only pen and ink.


The woman you were looking for,

when you strayed among the lines half done,

thinking of war and the “red, red mud

of the Means” — can you see her now?

The quick. She’s only flesh and blood.

The Word Kingdom in the Word Kingdom by Noah Eli Gordon. Brooklyn Arts Press. 151 pp.

Think John Ashbery. Think Barbara Guest. But no one is close to becoming Noah Eli Gordon but himself — poems we cannot turn away from — innovative thinking — the unringing of the bell. Welcome to the future with a word technician and thought trickster. Apologies in advance for ripping the following lines:

For Expression” is a nine page poem. Listen to this stanza: “…For a girl/ floating/ for a few seconds/ across/ the parking lot/ Against what’s only/ an ordinary/ skateboard/ underneath her…”

From “Questions For Further Study” …”but how/ can one talk about music/ without destroying it?...”

From the” Ten Ways To Take An Airplane Apart” (a ten stanza poem) “A bird goes to great lengths to construct its nest before/ knowing there are such things as eggs, but what/ architect isn’t born disregarding?”

Best American Experimental Poetry” is arranged pointilistically on the page but I’m quoting anyway: “In last season’s /dust///burning off//you can’t smell/ the oily fingerprints// of whomever/ positioned/ the spotlight// but you can/ amazingly/ see the power cord// plugged only into itself”

Eight Meditations On Enormity, Petrification, And Work” (eight prose poems.) I particularly like beginning lines in # 4: “That a train arrives at all is a small miracle of dependence/a smaller one of reliability. There’s weather to anchor us to one another…”

A New Kind Of Poem: “There is no ocean/in your ear/ to it. // What there is/ is this/ muffin, left long time/ on the granite countertop…” Then a riff of thoughts to finally “…I’m trying to be completely unambiguous.// If I were to say, “The only thing inside a muffin/ is muffin,” I would certainly mean it.”

Best American Experimental Poetry” (I realize there’s another poem titled this as well) “…If / you turn/ your head/ there, then/ you feel/ a sudden/ sharp pain/ run through/ your entire body…You’re enamored/ with this, so/ much so that/ you willingly/ subject yourself/ again and again/ to the pain/ in order to/ experience/ the rare/ simplicity/ of a proposition/ so easily confirmed”

This” (from a twelve pager, the last page) “…Poems shouldn’t make you wait for them to finish. / Like love, they should finish making you wait…”

I can be pilloried for this disruption, knowing how one line depends on another, or in Gordon’s case, how one non sequitur needs another, but some lines stay and stay in your head until you can only rid yourself by telling someone else. So to make up for this outrage, here’s a poem in its entirety showing how Gordon can close a deal.


For Michael Burkard

I was going to read your new book tonight going to start

on the balcony where I go to smoke standing next

to a square of light let out by the little window there

which gives enough to see if all the apartment lights are on

since I still haven’t changed the bulb above the porch a waste

I know I was going to read but the snow was too strong

it blew right into the first few pages so I closed the book

and smoked with my back to the wind which felt

deliberate and defiant at the same time I mean the act

not the weather although I know either way works really

ten years ago I wrote “gushing self-pity” next to a poem

in one of your books I’m sorry ten years ago I thought I knew

everything about what poems should do now I know I know

very little and that it’s better this way standing here in the dark

Kaleidoscope by Tina Barr. Iris Press. 84 pp.

Kaleidoscope is a great title because we come to poems from angles emotional with color — a joyful dedication to her art — always with new possibilities. Each poem is, by design, some elevated ideal on poetry’s stage. Here are observations and new awarenesses that make a huge difference. Barr is not interested in public debate or controversial issues; she is not a poet of opposition and struggle. Hers are small hymns, lucid and centralized. Poets all use the same material. It’s who they are, as individuals, that makes the stuff of art. She may write of a ‘great aunt who slept with her stepfather,’ or a ‘strangler in the neighborhood’ but she turns these into works of lyrical beauty. In “Dessert:”

“…My grandmother’s voice, high-boned, drifted in smoke as her legs crossed and uncrossed./ My hands in my velvet lap turned her pearls; I wore/ black patent shoes with a button hard to push through./ Waiters flourished lamb chops; frills dressed their bones./ I chose from a cart. Strawberries nestled in yellow cream, / the fluted edge of pastry, crust like shortbread. / Strawberries glazed under sugar, berries bedded in rows. My grandmother crossed Park, got hit by a car, and thrown.”

It takes a champion to write like this — to house tragedy within the perfect picture of elegance. We need her. We need her imagery. In “Shiny Brite” Barr speaks of the horrors of Nagasaki, the rapes of Okinawa, and transforms with the end stanza, “…My mother changed the subject; her not-love stung in little verbal clots, like milk in a woman/ whose breast burst a white lump the size of a/ summer orange from glands plugged with the burning./ Mandarin oranges grew in Kagoshima./ We found them in the toes of Christmas stockings./ My mother fed me segments in syrup from a can/ on which a Japanese beauty wore a comb, held a fan.”

Talk about poetry as a holy act. Barr takes the ugly and makes it beautiful. I guess that’s why we call this kind of writing a collaboration with God.

In the Kaleidoscope’s Chamber

As I turn the chambered end, the mirrors

seem to stretch the colors as jewels shift,

circling them into wheels of unfolding

flowers; the mind feeds on pattern, incites

us to find it. The chamber fills with purple,

blue bruises, the open jaw of a dead father,

multiplies the tight eyes of liars, orange tubes

of trumpet vine, pink-tipped brushes of mimosa,

filaments sweet as what I concocted in bottles

from a perfume kit as a kid. Green-felt seed pods

of magnolia from which spring tiny hooks like wires,

pine cones, maple burrs. My husband’s hands

tab the keys, dicing white and black. My ears

arrange it as music; outside are birds, ushering us in.

Archives of the Air by John Morgan. Salmon Poetry (Ireland). 67 pp.

Morgan writes of the natural beauties of his earth, Alaska. The old joke about poetry was I hope someone will make a movie of this. Here are poems where I wish someone would. They are visual, from a good eye making something another person would not see — or not see as fine. The land and its creatures are changed by human reason and a philosophy that ignores the evil in the world and brings comfort. What a beautiful human endeavor Morgan’s life is, expanding our vision with colorful masterful work. Poetry that is of service.


Fairbanks, Alaska

Ten below and ice-mist on the river

when “oh,” she says, “a butterfly!” as it

comes warbling from the sun-room, settles

on the floor. We offer sugar water

in a spoon and watch its sucking tube unroll.

It sips, then flutters to the windowsill

and folds its scalloped wings against the chill.


By noon, bright sun, and full of spunk it beats

against the glass, in love with light. The ground

outside, a spanking white, looks welcoming.

Its wings, like paisley, red and brown, quiver

as it paws the pane, embodiment of

summer in late fall, cold-blooded thing,

whose hopes will never be this young again.

Garden of Rain by Mike Maggio. Kelsay Books. 61 pp.

It’s always difficult to sum up a book of poems with variations of love, loss, and desire. These are serious issues so we look for particular qualities that make one writer different from the other. Maggio, by any analysis, is successful. Each work has a central idea and an emotional argument. Poetry is a series of deductions and transitions and Maggio is good with a broad brush, working his way to subtleties and small turning points. He stabilizes his poems answering questions not asked, inherently knowing what the reader might need. He has distinctive characterizations: “Brownies” is about a homeless woman the speaker once knew: “…Strange how, years later,/ as I squint through these hollow glasses/ at a woman squatting on a downtown street,/ huddles in humiliation, her face worn/ from years of neglect,/ the taste of your brownies/ continues to taunt my tongue.” Maggio is passionate about his subjects but keeps that nicely under cover.The Day My Father Died” talks about a bag of kittens scattered across the country road: Tiny heads crushed like black pepper/ soft palls of clotted fur—/chilling evidence of their swiftly muted/ lives.

Poets are not another species. They are just folks who happen to know how to see, and then tell about it. Mike Maggio does.

Still Life

What can the lonely gutter do

but embrace

a blue reclining nude


like a footpressed butt

mirrored in

the red-glazed wedges

of a restless beer bottle

and wait

for the swift tremulous cloud

to put out the sky.

Disappearing Act by Saundra Rose Maley. Dryad Press. 69 pp.

In “Song for My Father” the poet writes,” I lost him in the silent rooms/ Of our small house/ Where dust drifted/ Through slanted sunlight and he/ Disappeared behind the newspaper.// My child heart closed/ Like a fist around a smooth cold stone/ And decided he was no hero/ Just a government clerk,/ Not the father I wanted and I/ Surely not his only daughter…”

I like it best when I feel I know a poet personally by the reading. Some call it intimacy. This writer embraces historical figures, poets, and family with the same appetite. The distinction in each poem is a textual factor where variation of language and tone bring a different shine to each scene. From “The City Waits For Us” along with a beautiful scene in Italy, this: “…Those red roofs sun themselves/ Far from these bleached sheets, hung/ On a line, whipping our arms/ As we pulled them in like sails/ Between us, fresh and clean/ Beneath that tiny piece of wide blue sky/ We called home…”

Words are art. Their presentation makes our reality. This book is a chronicle making us step back a moment and marvel at the priceless museum of the human voice.

A Lesson

A candle flame burns the tip

Of my finger

Memory rekindles —


My father holding my hand

To the stove

To teach me


That life is trial by fire

And love

A cruel teacher.

Fortune’s Favor: Scott In Antarctica by Kim Roberts. Poetry Mutual Press. 45 pp. (Book includes historical photographs.)

Kim Roberts is known for her interest in converting the world of science into poetry. In this new book she advances her art with an expedition to Antarctica. From the prologue: ’'… 17 major expeditions were launched from ten countries…to map the continent and gather data specimens…The primary goal was to become the first country to reach the geographic and magnetic south poles..”

“…Robert Falcon Scott led two Antarctic expeditions. The first, the Discovery Expedition, took place from 1901 to 1904. Scott and his men made the first ascent of the polar plateau; reaching the Farthest South … The book traces the fate of his second expedition, the Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-1913, and is written in his voice.” This is necessary historical context and Robert’s social contract with the reader takes us with the explorers — the “Officers,” “Scientists” and “Men” who are detailed at the end.
Let’s speak about the English language which has some 1.5 million words. Roberts, with optic accuracy, finds the precise ones in 20 perfect sonnets. These describe the weather, the land, the transportation, comradeship, provisions, and the human travail. But Roberts is also an historian as well as poet so her goal is to recreate a groundbreaking piece of the history of science in verse. I suppose it took a true passion to spend as much time researching and delineating the journals of Captain Scott as it does writing the poems. (Scott was of the Royal Navy, nicknamed “Owner” and “Skipper.”) We never know what ignites a writer’s imagination to spend lengths of time preparing to write poetry. Roberts had to make the present meet the past because poems MAKE TIME START NOW. And we begin the adventure to Antarctica as it’s happening. Each poem’s a flashpoint of daily activities. Roberts has on her side a constant source of suspense receding each day in the distance as we live its beginning and ending.

The words that come to mind while reading this are “humility” and “honesty.” Never does Roberts stretch a glide to sensationalize an already dramatic circumstance. She shows the surface of events and lets the facts reveal the depth of what’s at stake. No showboating. No making matters better or worse. Just finding the right emotional vocabulary to tell the story cleanly and imagistically. The end result is that we experience rather than watch. Detailed and inventive, these are highly charged well made verses that not only reveal what happened on our geographic globe, but extend poetry’s globalization as well.

Scant Progress

The surface on the Barrier is bad,

no glide, like pulling over desert sand.

The absence of poor Edgar Evans helps

the commissariat, but in fit state

he might have helped us get up better speed.

Great difference now between the temperatures

of night and day — how swift the season comes.

We never won a march of eight mere miles

with greater industry. Now fuel runs low.

With every semblance of good cheer preserved,

we’ll see the game through with the proper spirit.

But Oates’ feet are wretched, bitten through

and swollen — he must be in agony

although he shows rare pluck and won’t complain.

Crimes Against Birds by Denton Loving. Main Street Rag Publishing Company. 63 pp.

Loving starts his poems with reason and moves his process to invoke an emotional memorial to the subject. There’s a charitable spirit in each poem as he rescues himself and other creatures with words. Poetry is a Calling to some and that’s clearly evident in this case. Writing not as a career move, but a generosity passed on — a long view of life without weighing consequence, not seeking praise. So it is with Denton Loving. A stanza from the poem “Eleanor:”

Twice, I chased buzzards from her lifeless body, pulled/ her up, willed her to live, when it would have been easier/ to let her die. Her mother, confused by the heat/ and the hard birth, had already given up her calf…” The poem ends “…”I called her Eleanor, for the queen of Aquitaine, / because she needed every ounce of strength a name/ could give. She needed the gall to go on a crusade, ride/bare-breasted across the desert, make kings of boys.”

The spine of Loving’s work is connected directly through his land. His dynamic is the love of his portion of the earth, fresh fruits, fresh fields, fresh grain, obviously entrusted to him by those smart poetry gods in the sky. He’s more than a nature poet. The dynamic of Loving’s work is for a better world. And this is exactly the way to change it. He can also photograph a sharp scene.


In my car in McDonald’s parking lot, I drink

my ninety-nine sweet tea with the window

rolled down to feel the noon-time sun. It’s fifty

degrees, a break from winter snows. Weathermen

call it Indian Summer, but it’s too late to be. People

in the Kroger’s lot pull in and out, walk in and come

back with groceries. Mr. Marks arrives with his cane

and gray fedora, wears dark glasses like he wants

to be anonymous, but he won’t ever be. He’s lived

in this town too many years, and his limp gives

him away. Wearing a scruffy winter beard,

there’s a man I knew when I was a kid. A bag

boy collects shopping carts, though he isn’t a boy.

He’s worked there for years, might be a lifer. Ocean

Breaths Salty plays on the radio: I know the words.

Why God is A Woman by Nin Andrews. Boa Editions. 88 pp.

Nin Andrews can fly. I’m sure of it. Nin Andrews can fly and soar and draw cartoons and make poems and firebrand the world with them.

This time she’s landed on an island where male and female roles are reversed “… the men are written up in tourist magazines that describe them as island Adonises…” By the way, these men have wings and the bigger the better, and all the more reason to be stalked and seduced by women. Of course these sex objects also have an idol, Julio Vega — the Island’s beauty King. They wear what he wears, overcoming jealousy by imitation. “…A man’s place is at the feet of a woman, he announced when he was running for president.”

On this island “… Vagina envy is the most common psychological disorder…” and who could blame the men since all the women on the island look like Angelina Jolie? Our male protagonist goes through pain with his own Angelina and endures love’s loss “growing old and featherless.”

On The Island where I come from there is also psychotherapy “…that produces/ a digital image of the patient’s soul. In healthy patients the image looks /like an apartment building with a million glowing rooms, each a lit/ box connected by squiggly lines…” There are higher selves and lower selves here, past and future, and fantasy selves. Since the poems are untitled, this one’s on page 69, look it up, it’s terrific.

Andrews flies her flag of satire creating a lost tribe on a fictional island with language intoxicated by wit and a passion to break down barriers. At first I didn’t notice the poems were written in prose lines because of the controlled and harmonized language. And every line is interesting. Andrews’ default is always about behavior with psychological and emotional reality. She brings on her A Game with a humorous theory of unified equivalents — man and woman — the story that never ends. She says, ”… everyone knows it was Adam who ate the apple in the Garden of Eden. The snake had nothing to do with it. Adam didn’t even apologize…” Nin Andrews sets things right, sweet and funny.

On the Island where I grew up

the women sat on their porches at dusk, enjoying the island breeze and

watching the men walk past, admiring their hair, their legs, their style.

Back then stretchy pants were all the rage. Some of the men wore tight

pants; some wore tighter pants, and some wore pants so tight,

the women wondered if they could breathe. The women, including my

mother and sisters, hooted and shouted when a sexy man walked past.

Did you see that guy? one might ask. I’d like to pinch his ass. Sometimes,

when they saw a particularly beautiful buttocks or set of thighs, they

clapped and broke into applause.


It’s so humiliating, I told my father. Even my neighbor, Angelina, liked

to whistle when an attractive man walked by.

Girls will be girls, my father sighed. Just like God will be God, meaning

that nothing I did or said could ever change these facts.

Count the Waves by Sandra Beasley. W.W. Norton. 96 pp.

Beasley has one of the widest readerships I know for a poet of a young age. And this book will define her further. There are not central characters in the poems. That’s what I like. It’s a secret metaphoric world of life and death still forming. It’s not only what is written but how. The rhythm in the line becomes a vibrato and speaks a language never heard before; yet trusting to be heard. That’s it. Trust. Beasley dares to sing her psalms and symbols as if from an enchanted forest. Ultimately about relationships — not your everyday “reality show married at first sight relationships” — this is the real forging of bonds that never quite meet, because try as we do, that’s who we are.

In “Parable”

Worries come to a man and woman. /Small ones, light in the hand. / The man decides to swallow his worries, / hiding them deep within himself. The woman/ throws hers as far as she can from the porch./ They touch each other, relieved./ They make coffee, and make plans for/ the seaside in May…”

From “The Sword Swallower’s Valentine”

“…Funny how women make and break their men,/ how martinis both break and make a match./ The best magician will hang up his saw,/ release his doves, if the right woman acts/ to un-straitjacket his body in time…”

I’m not speaking of romantic love; nothing as ordinary as that — this book is unrepentingly a modern Beckett where the inevitable is always in waiting. Here is a vocabulary of perceptions about “the human condition (I don’t know what else to call it 😉 and it’s been a long time since we’ve had a writer as its oral historian in this way with prayer for some relief. There’s a gallantry in all this, Beasley’s tolerance for risk. A poem cannot speak for everyone but hers come pretty close to the complete package — paradox and portrait. In “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #7671” “It’s not Secret Here:”

“… You want to kiss my mouth, but not/ the teeth inside my mouth. You want/ to hold my hand, but not the blood/within the hand. There is a truth/ in you, but it won’t be the dirty truth/ until it tumbles into the air between/ us…”

Beasley tackles our moral progress, with its wounds of love, authoritatively and emphatically. There’s not a weakness to be found in her orations. She observes, and again like Beckett, humor is dark. “Valentine for the Gravedigger”:

“…Pretend that she likes you, Not that you’d truck/ in gossip but, face it, you get the dirt/ on us all in the end. She’s a black hole. / She’s all yours if you keep your wallet close. / Or? Run to me, your Alice of the dark dirt, / offering my hand toward the Rabbit Hole, / I’m just a truck crash away. You’re so close.”

This is different from Beasley’s former books. Could she have written this earlier — such complex animated ideas? It’s like ancient writing in digital age, a virtual reality with biblical seriousness. There’s a poem about a man who ‘serves as the Office of Bacciferous plants.’… ‘He patents the holly.’ At the end ”…He longs for the crunch of good, tensed truth. He considers/ a lateral transfer to the Office of Herbaceous Perennials./ The raw artichoke unfurls its fist, motions him closer.”

Count the Waves is going to extend Beasley’s poetic reputation but that’s not what matters. She has a new responsibility to regenerate the word, without old harmony. She’s not here to give us what we already know, but to strike new chords as if they’re the last we’ll hear on earth. That’s her assessment of the world in classical post-modernism. It’s terrifyingly good. Da Vinci said, “Genius is the capacity for taking pain.” We hope this is not true.

The Traveler’s Vade Mecum,

Line #7405: “The Offer Will

Not Be Repeated”

Two men walk on a path.

One has a blade in his pocket.

We do not know if the edge

is grimed with paint, or butter,

or as clean as a newborn tongue.

One has an apple in his pocket.

Put a horse at the end of his path,

and he is kind to animals. Leave

the horse out, and he is hungry.

They can stop and sit together,

knife licking away the skin

in perfect, blush-red strips.

One will look over his shoulder.

One will fail an appointment

he promised to keep. But they

can have this meal, if they

choose. They keep walking.

Shirim, A Jewish Poetry Journal, Guest Editor Merrill Leffler. 56 pp.

Start with the commentaries in the back of the book by the poets, then move to their poems. It’s an unexpected goodness. This is a Hall of Fame featuring our best: Myra Sklarew, Linda Pastan, Kim Roberts, Barbara Goldberg, Jerome Rothenberg, Howard Schwartz, Linda Zisquit, Tom Mandel (Mandel’s essay is indispensable with anecdotes of humor and wisdom,) Robert Mezey, Elizabeth Rees, Harry Rand, Seymour Mayne, Roger Aplon, Chana Bloch, Beth Joselow, Jacqueline Jules, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Miriam Isaacs, Jean Nordhaus , Charles Ades Fishman, Olivia Simpson Ellis, Jack Greer, and Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) ‘who has had an immense influence on contemporary literature.’

Editor Leffler’s introduction emphasizes that the Journal is not a taxonomy of poets on Judaism. His wish is to have converging views on the Bible and Jewish Folklore. The human context to literature and tradition is the poet’s voice. Leffler’s literary fortune is in finding ideas of substance with as many diverse forms as there are poets speaking.

The works we read here are the internal realities of an external text with its ancient versions. These poems are not abstractions made modern — they are individual sensibilities and temperaments. Poetry makes everything come alive. That’s its job. The Journal is described as “Poems of Jewish Bible and Folklore.” Read it, teach it. History in verse by some of our best poets writing with sensitivity to the subject.

Grace Cavalieri’s latest book is a memoir, Life Upon the Wicked Stage. She produces and hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio, celebrating 38 years on air. She holds the Washington Independent Review of Books' 2015 “Lifetime Achievement Award.”

Review copies should be sent to:

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

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