Posts Tagged ‘wallace stevens’

Wallace Stevens: Adorning the Rock

May 5, 2019

 

This is the longest piece I ever wrote. I published it on extrasimile in four parts. it also appeared (and still appears, though it difficult to find) on00 arduity.com. You will be forgiven if you don’t read it, but it is something of f an Ars Poetica for me.

 

 

 

Donald Hall goes right to the point: I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems. Steven Spender is equally succinct: I think continually of those who were truly great./ Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history.

Great Poetry is Difficult Poetry, but…

It seems an unimpeachable point. Maybe we could quibble over this ‘soul’s history’ stuff, but who wants to write a mediocre poem? Who, indeed, takes pencil and paper in hand with the intention of writing something merely passable? No one’s forcing you to do this, pal. You can be a commonplace anything. Why write poetry? You’d be better off practicing guitar chords or working on your jump shot.

I won’t get cute here. We all know the evil answer to this question lurks in Hall’s ‘your goal’. We all know there is a great gulf between trying to write a great poem and writing a great poem.

Substitute the word ‘difficult’ for ‘great’ in both Donald Hall’s and Steven Spender’s sentences and you will find an interesting shift in meaning. Let’s face it, if you go through life aspiring to be difficult, all you accomplish is that you’ll stop getting invited to parties. As a goal for your poems, being merely difficult does not seem sufficient-whereas being great does. Still, we do think a great poem is a difficult poem, do we not? Difficulty suggests complexity of vision, insightfulness, a penetration of subject matter, an attempt to wring something from our quotidian lives that makes those lives worth living. A difficult poem attempts to tell us something we don’t want to hear. A difficult poem at least has the potential to be great that an ‘easy’ poem does not. Name one poem that’s great and easy. While they are clearly not identical, if we are going to understand the great poem there is a good chance we are going to have to get there through the door of the difficult poem. Besides, anybody can write a difficult poem.

Why are you doing this to yourself?


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Freddy goes to Florida

March 7, 2011

The great train goes by like a great but grainy owl,
like a black-and-white two-reeler that’s both
a movie and a mnemonic—oh yes!—

each view a polished memory, each stop,
each station, each picket fence, every tree
a hiding dryad! (Freddy’s read his Keats.)

He smiles. We’ll go easy on the dryads.
It seems there is a rumor on the train
that Greta Garbo is traveling incognito

under the name ‘Mrs. Wiggins’. It seems
that he, plain vanilla Freddy, has been
ID’d as Fatty Arbuckle en route

to Florida to star with Miss Garbo
in his first talkie. What an idea.
Mrs. Wiggins as Greta Garbo!

He is reading the book of poetry
he got from that rather heavyset man,
an insurance lawyer from Connecticut.

Rumor and amour, he thinks. Poems about
love. Freddy turns the page.
O Florida, he reads. Venereal Soil.

Hey, he says. Hey,
this is good.

Adorning the Rock (4)

December 2, 2010

Adorning the Rock (1)
Adorning the Rock (2)
Adorning the Rock (3)

Twisted, stooping, polymathic Z

When we last saw Wallace Stevens he was in a bar, in a bad mood. Indeed, late style might be thought of as bringing a bad mood (and the bar) to the process of creation.  Anyway, Uncle Wallace is in a Blarney Stone in downtown Hartford, seventy years later. After some prefatory grumbling he writes this monster of a sentence, which I have taken the liberty of copying out without the line breaks:

The meeting at the edge of the field seems like an invention, an embrace between one desperate clod and another in a fantastic consciousness, in a queer assertion of humanity: a theorem proposed between the two—two figures in a nature of the sun, in the sun’s design in its own happiness, as if nothingness contained a métier, a vital assumption, an impermanence in its permanent cold, an illusion so desired that the leaves came and covered the high rock, that the lilacs came and bloomed like a blindness cleansed, exclaiming bright sight, as it was satisfied , in a birth of sight.

What?

The meeting at the edge of the field seems like an invention.

A long sentence has the advantage of ordering information. You get to show the reader the relative importance to be placed on each and every clause in the story. The periodic sentence is the mother of long sentences. Here’s Ann Radcliffe in Romance in the Forest:

While he was declaring the ardour of his passion in such terms, as but too often make vehemence pass for sincerity, Adeline, to whom this declaration, if honourable, was distressing, and if dishonourable, was shocking, interrupted him and thanked him for the offer of a distinction, which, with a modest, but determined air, she said she must refuse.

What?

She said she must refuse.

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Adorning the Rock (3)

October 1, 2010

Adorning the Rock (1)
Adorning the Rock (2)

Seventy years Later

The first section of The Rock (is ‘canto’ appropriate here?) starts off so bleakly that the temptation is to skirt its title. Stevens was seventy or so when he wrote The Rock. It is obvious that he is writing about his life, and the first line—‘It is an illusion that we were ever alive,’—does rather grab you away from that title. So puzzling. But use ‘seventy years later’ in a sentence. ‘Wallace set out to be a lawyer at a very young age. Seventy years later he was one of the most renowned legal minds in the world.’ ‘Wallace was molested by a pedophile as a child. Seventy years later…’ If we are contemplating anything here, we are contemplating a complex grammatical situation. The phrase ‘seventy years later’ does a lot of work. It establishes a point in time seventy years ago which has relevance to this day. It then travels those seventy years to look back on this past time, assess its significance. Of course, what he is looking back on may not be a thing (‘Rosebud’) it may be a process or the passage of time itself, or the significance of that process, that passage of time.  And all this, it seems to say, can only be understood ‘seventy years later’. Not bad for three words.

Refine that: The understanding that ‘seventy years later’ brings is a different understanding than what was possible ‘seventy years ago’. Three score and ten is the traditional, biblical life span. You get your seventy years to understand what you can in this world, Plato be damned. Understanding is a process and it’s bound to time. Understanding is bound to you, your ‘self’. Coming to understand ‘time’ and ‘self’ are some of the things you understand with the self and time you have. What you understand of time and the events and processes of your life, you understand afresh and anew with each drop of your life—as you live in time. (But how long is that ‘drop’? A drop may just be on the short side of time, not quite after the tick, not quite before the tock. A nanosecond is too long.) You stop understanding when you die. Significance, meaning, knowledge, poetry are all bound up in that seventy years.

Stevens drank. It is not difficult to see him sitting at the end of the bar, grumbling the opening of The Rock to some unassuming soul. ‘It is an illusion that we were ever alive.  Regard the freedom of seventy years ago. It is no longer air. Even our shadows no longer remain…Absurd. The words spoken were not and are not. They never were.’ Bah, humbug.

Late Style

Just before he died, Edward Said became interested in an idea Theodor Adorno used to describe the music Beethoven had written just before he died. Adorno called it ‘late style’.

Beethoven’s art had overgrown itself…isolated too from sense by loss of his hearing; lonely prince of a realm of spirits, from whom now only a chilling breath issued to terrify his most willing contemporaries, standing as they did aghast at these communications of which only at moments, only by excerption, they could understand anything at all.

What Adorno actually meant by late style can be a little difficult to pin down.  Said’s attempt to do so is called ‘Timeliness and Lateness’ and is reprinted in a book Michael Wood put together after Said died,  On Late Style: The late Edward Said on the late Theodor Adorno on the late Ludwig Beethoven’s late style. Where is the Mad Hatter when we need him?

Of course some artists get to transcendence in their old age. They achieve wholeness and harmony. They synthesize their knowledge, their experience, and their wisdom at the end of their life. Think Rembrandt, Matisse, Bach, Wagner, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Verdi’s Falstaff.  This is some of the greatest art man has made. (Steven Jay Gould, when asked to suggest something to put in a space capsule chose Bach’s Mass in B minor. ‘Tell them it’s the best we’ve done.’)  For these artists all the contradictions have been worked out. A harp is playing in their respective heads. Life is worth living; I can die content; and so can you.

Nice work if you can get it.

The other side of the coin is the late style that Adorno thought he found in the deaf Beethoven. Here the contradictions most definitely have not been resolved. Music is produced that is characterized by dissonance and discord; music that’s petulant, bitter, acerbic; music that’s sublime and blunt by turn. Middle class certainties are mocked and lampooned; death has no redeeming qualities.

His late work still remains process, but not as development; rather as catching fire between two extremes, which no longer allow for any secure middle ground or harmony of spontaneity.

Late style can be seen in other artists as well. Said gave a course at Columbia on late style that included such notables as Richard Strauss, Mozart, Glenn Gould, and Thomas Mann. If you’ve read any Adorno, your credulity will not be tested when I tell you that most demanding of late stylists was Theodor Adorno.

Extreme Late Style

Okay, this is interesting. Late style has the artist mimicking his own discontent with, on the one hand, the pettiness of middle class life, and, on the other, with the utter force majeure of death itself. But we know life is unfair; we know we are going to die—we do know these things, right?

Adorno commands our attention further because he perhaps was a late stylist all his life. His prose was always ‘as catching fire between two extremes’. Said thinks:

Adorno uses the model of late Beethoven to endure ending in the form of lateness but for itself, its own sake, not as preparation for or obliteration of something else. Lateness is being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present.

What?

What Adorno does is theoretical—that is his construction isn’t supposed to be a replica of the real thing… The location of Adorno’s writing is theory, a space where he can construct his demystifying negative dialectics.

Synthesis is at issue. The late stylist can’t quite get there. And, yes, we can talk of synthesis in terms of Hegel. The artist can construct his thesis, he can construct his antithesis—but …he can’t quite find a way of melding the two.

That fragmentariness will result seems obvious. But one also finds one’s self, how shall I say, up in the air, in a space of one’s own, a space…well, is it theoretical space? One way to think of synthesis in the thesis/ antithesis/ synthesis process is to see it as a return to earth. The synthesis is where reality comes in.  Said seems to think, for example—and he was a far closer student of Adorno’s work than I shall ever be—that Adorno wasn’t so much interested in describing what Beethoven’s music was actually like, but rather he was constructing a model. Models are useful in that they help us look at the world; they do not—strictly speaking—describe the world. Adorno was constructing in his own elaborate way—Said uses the word ‘mandarin’—the same thing Wallace Stevens was constructing—in his own mandarin way. Stevens called this thing the Poem.

From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own, and much more not ourselves.
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.

A little tip about writing poetry

Poetry doesn’t describe anything. Have a little ‘poetic’ experience on the bus? Fine. Just don’t try to describe it in a poem. Gary Snyder gets it right: Lay down these words/ Before your mind like rocks. (Like rocks, not like The Rock.) Poems are constructs of words. Their relationship to the world is not one of description.

I am the necessary angel of earth,
since in my sight you see the earth again.

Write the poem first. And then see if you see the earth in its light—or in its shadows.

Adorning the Rock (2)

September 16, 2010

We live in an old Chaos of the Sun

Our words want to turn the world into a human world, a place where humans live. Name something, write a sentence about it, talk about it, think up an adjective that applies to it, and you are bringing it into the human world. Go for it: write a metaphor—all the world’s a stage—a simile—o my love’s like a red, red rose—apostrophize it—o rose, though art sick!—write a poem, develop a myth, articulate a philosophy. Pray. Write aphorisms, sutras, tack your thesis to a church door. Order a sandwich for lunch. Propose to your beloved. Teach somebody something. Educate the masses. Establish liberal democracy…

Words have been helping mankind cozy up to the cosmos since…well, since ‘in the beginning’. God must have given us words. Words must have given us God. Take your pick on the two previous sentences…

It’s Sunday morning. People used to go to church on Sunday morning. Wallace Stevens (or his protagonist) has decided to spend the day at home.  Complacent as one can be in a peignoir, she and he are still young, reveling in the green freedom that youth has, quite certain they have seen through the ancient myths. That tomb in Palestine is just that, a tomb, a grave. All that other-worldly stuff—okay, okay, it still has its appeal—but let’s face it, we’re talking mythology here. Truth is, we live in a purposeless world, we live on a pale blue dot in a vast cosmos of empty space, we live an old chaos of the sun, that’s all. A sunny Sunday. Is this is a hard place to be, even if you’re young and healthy and you have a taste for aesthetic contemplation? The poem Wallace Stevens wrote, Sunday Morning, doesn’t quite tell us. We are left with pigeons, floating off the horizon—on extended wings.

I’m going to be an annoying kid here and tug at Uncle Wallace’s coat. Where have those pigeons landed exactly? And aren’t those pigeons really us, soaring around, not sure of what to do next? Are you really sure they’re pigeons and not doves? Couldn’t they be, like, Christian birds, symbolic of the aimless condition religion has gotten itself into? Couldn’t this be a kind of reverse Kierkegaard? A leap into doubt? Birds live by leaping, don’t they? On the precipice they spread their wings and jump. The flying part is just mitigation; they have to land at some point. Come on, Uncle Wallace, you can’t just leave them floating up there. Where do they land?

Entitled

Nobody does titles better than Wallace Stevens. Just pick a few out of the hat— Tea at the Palaz of Hoon; The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad; The Snow Man. They could be tickets to a secret world. Take The World as Meditation: Just think about ‘the world as meditation’:  it redefines ‘world’; it redefines ‘meditation’; and it leaves you wondering about that ‘as’.  Really, not even the ‘the’ is safe.

Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.

Even with these great titles, Stevens remains a problematic poet for a lot of people. Canvas the room and you’ll likely come up with a list of adjectives: dry, deliberate, emotionless, elaborate, abstract, too abstract, philosophical, philosophical (both the bad kind and the very bad).

This is surely to miss the point. Stevens offers us a rare bouquet. Philosophy and poetry float together in his lines and sentences. They mingled in his mind; his mind merged them. It has long been something of an insult in philosophy circles to call your opponent’s work ‘poetry’. Can one reverse the gambit? Can one look down one’s nose and dismiss a poem as mere philosophy?

The Rock

Here’s what I’d like you to do. Get your hand s on a nice rock, something you can put on the coffee table, a piece of backyard quartz, a lump of granite, gneiss. Get a big rock.  What we want is something to remind us how time flies, something to remind us how short a fuse our particular life is set to. We want something that will intrude on our lives. Why will a rock do this? Just as a prominently placed skull was once thought to serve as a reminder of death, the rock will intimate a long perspective on time.  Death moves us away from our temporal being. We don’t want that; your rock may have been in existence for many thousands of years.  For us, time flies. For the rock, it simply doesn’t.  It’s an ancient being, on a different scale of existence than we are.

Wallace Stevens, I suspect, would simply deplore this idea. Messing up the living room with a boulder! Towards the end of his life he wrote a poem called The Rock. The poem he wrote doesn’t evoke or necessitate a particular rock; it certainly is not about collecting rocks or carving them. When Keats wrote about a Grecian urn, it seemed like he was at least looking at a Grecian urn. Not so with The Rock. Mr. Stevens seems to have a theoretical rock in mind.

The rock is the habitation of the whole,
It’s strength and measure, that which is near, point A
In a perspective again,

At B.

As a title The Rock sounds rather impenetrable. The Rock suggests a monolith, something so unitary, so primitive it can only be understood in a great intuitive embrace of being. The Rock reeks of Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’. Analysis, some sort of break down into component parts, some procedural divide and conquer methodology, simply won’t work. We may have to make some deep philosophic apprehension to understand this Rock, not divide it up, right Uncle Wallace? This is what you had in mind with this title, something to challenge knowledge.

Wallace Stevens divided his impregnable Rock into three sections: Seventy years later; the Poem as Icon; and Forms of the Rock in a Night Hymn—titles that must be footholds to help our climb. Thanks, Uncle Wallace.

Adorning the Rock (1)

September 9, 2010

Great Poetry is Difficult Poetry, but…

Donald Hall goes right to the point: I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems. Steven Spender is equally succinct: I think continually of those who were truly great./ Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history.

It seems an unimpeachable point. Maybe we could quibble over this ‘soul’s history’ stuff, but who wants to write a mediocre poem? Who, indeed, takes pencil and paper in hand with the intention of writing something merely passable? No one’s forcing you to do this, pal. You can be a commonplace anything. Why write poetry?  You’d be better off practicing guitar chords or working on your jump shot.

I won’t get cute here. We all know the evil answer to this question lurks in Hall’s ‘your goal’.  We all know there is a great gulf between trying to write a great poem and writing a great poem.

Substitute the word ‘difficult’ for ‘great’ in both Donald Hall’s and Steven Spender’s sentences and you will find an interesting shift in meaning. Let’s face it, if you go through life aspiring to be difficult, all you accomplish is that you’ll stop getting invited to parties. As a goal for your poems, being merely difficult does not seem sufficient—whereas being great does. Still, we do think a great poem is a difficult poem, do we not? Difficulty suggests complexity of vision, insightfulness, a penetration of subject matter, an attempt to wring something from our quotidian lives that makes those lives worth living. A difficult poem attempts to tell us something we don’t want to hear. A difficult poem at least has the potential to be great that an ‘easy’ poem does not. Name one poem that’s great and easy. While they are clearly not identical, if we are going to understand the great poem there is a good chance we are going to have to get there through the door of the difficult poem. Besides, anybody can write a difficult poem.

Why are you doing this to yourself?

I have a non-poetry example. I just saw the movie, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Directed by Julian Schnabel, it throws you into the life of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who as the result of a stroke is ‘locked-in’ to a nearly immobile body. His thoughts are said to be unimpeded, but his functioning body has been reduced to one eye. He can blink. This is how he communicates. A great deal of the film places you behind that eye. We are privy to his thoughts—the mind-body problem in extremis—we see the world as it seems to that one trapped eye. It is a harrowing movie. It may qualify as a great one. I certainly found it difficult to watch. Now, here’s the thing. Pretty much everybody I talked to had the same question—indeed, the film asks it  of itself— Why did you want to see this film? Why are you doing this to yourself? What is gained by subjecting yourself to this drama?

My answer: A terrible beauty is born.

I wonder at the source of this beauty; it is unmistakably there.

Death is the Mother of Beauty

Though he will break it to us gently, Wallace Stevens has something difficult to tell us. The world is a beautiful place, yes…

Deer walk on our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness…

But…

…in the isolation of the sky,
at evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
ambiguous undulations

There is something alien in that beauty—ambiguous, isolated—something not human. Oh, and by the way, death is the mother of beauty—how about that?

Too Much Music

September 2, 2009

1.

I don’t know, you just can’t beat a good parade—

And John Philip Sousa, either.  Either

The Colonel Bogey March, or Stars and Stripes

Forever—or—do both! A row of drums,

A row of trumpets, fifes and flutes, my fav

The glockenspiel, the cymbals, saxophones,

Sousaphones, of course. Then—then—the Mayor’s car,

The fire department, police cars, girl scouts,

Boy Scouts, the K of C—fucking A—even the

4 H Club wants in!  Still, it’s a strange, strange

Prolegomenon to silence, this parade.

Like, it could be an ancient battle of

The bands, like that Charles Ives’ thing where

These two bands march along Main Street, you know,

And pass each other playing all the tunes

They can imagine…and imagine they do it

Every day, music for everybody,

24/ 7. Some imagination, right?

But silence used to speak louder than that.

Turn off the lights, my dear. It’s time for bed.

The music of the spheres is greater still.

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Bird in Space

June 7, 2009

The first sentence test: It is not a serious novelist’s nightmare (the possibility is so absurd); nevertheless, suppose you fancied yourself a serious novelist (a writer, as they say, of the first rank), and a wire were delivered in your dream (the telephone rang, there was a sudden knock), and this were followed by the formal announcement that you, Julia Peterkin, or you, Marjorie Rawlings, or you, Allen Drury or Michael Shaara or Alison Lurie, had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 1929 or ’39 or ’60 or ’75 or ’85.

camel1a

So, what do you think? This is Bill Gass, and he has done worse and/ or better, depending on ‘blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers and sung by Longshoremen, that lead like look the skin has when affected by the cold, contusion, sickness, fear’ to get his point across; depending, that is, on whether you think such sentences are ‘beautiful and breathless’ (and, yes, use these words when quoting), or a type of prison (as in prison sentence), because this particular sentence, the opening one for On Being Blue (I mean the quote in this sentence; we will get back to the first sentence), via the semicolon, will go on into the next page and he doesn’t even get to Babe the Big Blue Ox; and depending if you want your sentences to actually say something, something like ‘Dick and Jane went to the corner store and brought a loaf of bread’, and hold off to page two the injunction to, “Run Spot, run,”; depends anyway on if you think such sentences should name something, or at least say something (call them facts, call then propositions) or just be…gassing.

And it depends on how much work you are willing to let ‘depend’ do in any one sentence; I had it doing too much, I think; first pointing to some simple sentence structure, and then suggesting your evaluation depends on your tolerance for verbal flora and fauna, and then luring you perilously close to committing  something philosophical on names and propositions (‘say something’) or at least committing to a kind of realism, and maybe got you wondering if an account of language use was equivalent to an account of learning a language—what are you learning about anyway—and ending in some kind of childish appeal to flatulence. I could have said Out, out damn spot; and enough with the semicolons already.

In fiction, it makes sense to start with a character, put her right in that first sentence. This fiction we will call Bird in Space

Saint Bromide surrendered to the stench of death as she forced herself to step into the darkened classroom. The purpose of the first sentence, she thought, is to get the reader to read the second sentence .It was like stepping over debris. If you don’t read the next sentence you will die a horrible death, and besides it’s a short sentence, so go on, take a look—please—I’ll be your best friend forever.

But the children had turned to clay and stone.

‘Call me Ishmael’, she announced to the darkness. Could anyone hear her voice? Was there anyone still alive? Speak the passwords and wait, she had been told.

From nowhere a voice emerged. ‘Melville’, it said. ‘Herman Melville.’

‘Bromide’ she answered bravely. ‘Felicia Saint Bromide’.

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The World as Meditation

October 25, 2008

The Sun, on the Horizon…

Wallace Stevens was fond of writing and speculating—and (if I may) poetizing and philosophizing—about ‘the poem’. Inscribing a copy of his Collected Poems to one of Holly Stevens’ English professors, he wrote:

When I speak of the poem, in this book, I mean not merely a literary form, but the brightest and most harmonious concept, or order, of life; and the references should be read with that in mind.

Stevens also wrote about ‘the poem’ in Reply to Papini, that it was:

 The growth of the mind .

Of the world, the heroic effort to live expressed

As victory.

 

And from Notes towards a Supreme Fiction, a statement of origins:

From this the poem springs: that we live in a place

That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves

And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.

 

The brightest concept of life, the most harmonious concept of life. The growth of the mind of the world…

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Poetry about poetry and poetry about hunger

October 19, 2008

I too, dislike it, Marianne Moore writes in a poem she simply called Poetry: as if sensing the ensuing fate of poetry is to be genuinely ignored—but offers a quick apologia: poetry is a place for the genuine, she insists. It is useful.

One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not pretty,
nor till the poets among us can be
“literalists of
the imagination”–above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them, shall we have

it. 

 One is tempted to discount such things despite the good writing. Yes, an imaginary garden with real toads is one of the better characterizations of a poem, but we have real problems in this world, why spend a single iota of time worrying about, you know, meta-poetry? Like, if you can’t find something serious to write about…

Listen however to what William Carlos Williams is telling his wife:

My heart rouses

          thinking to bring you news

                    of something

that concerns you

          and concerns many men.  Look at

                    what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in

          despised poems.

                    It is difficult

to get the news from poems

          yet men die miserably every day

                    for lack

of what is found there.

         

Landing fresh on the planet from Mars, one would want to know more about this thing called a ‘poem’—despised or not. Let’s try another one:

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