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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Moving on the web is almost as much work as moving physically, or it seems so right now, and it takes a lot more thinking. I'm about to let the smoke out. Still, mikesnider.org is live, hosting this blog, and beginning to look a little like home, thanks to RapidWeaver, together with themes from Rapid-Ideas. Still lots to do—the look's not quite right yet and many of the links in the content sections point to old (still live) sites, but its internal stuff, linked from sidebars, is starting to work. I've got designs (I think) for the audio and photo sections, and this coming weekend I'll move most of that.

I'm too beat to do much thinking about poetry, but I picked up the new Poetry and the new Hudson Review from my mail at home, so reading is good. At least until I pass out, which is early these days thanks to code all day at work and code when I get back to the apartment at night. This too shall pass.


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Saturday, January 28, 2006

I don't have a television or a radio at my apartment in Maryland, and the drive to work is too short to hear much more than the NPR headlines or a snippet of a story, depending on timing. Even on my 300 mile drives home and back I usually listen to jazz, or, more often, poetry played from my iPod with a little FM transponder. I've got a lot of Frost and Auden and I used to have a lot of Stevens from the Random House "Voice of the Poet" series (of Stevens only "Idea of Order at Key West" remains); I've got the Caedmon 20th poetry sampler and The Hudson Review's 55th anniversary CD; I've got Kim Addonizio and Susan Browne's Swearing, Smoking, Drinking, Kissing CD. It's great to follow Frost rasping out "and to do that to birds is why she came" with Addonizio's "When I think of all the men I've fucked when I was drunk." One oddity I've noticed—or more likely, one oddity about my noticing—is that "The Wasteland" frequently plays as I'm approaching Durham. The transponder is extremely low-power, and the early version I have is difficult to retune while driving, so sometimes when it's overwhelmed I switch to whatever local public radio station I can find. Yesterday I caught Science Friday on "Talk of the Nation," and Joe Palca was talking with Sean Carroll, author of Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo-Devo. Palca was a little out of his depth, but Carroll was very good. I think PZ Meyers (BTW, that's a new address for Pharyngula) would have been proud of his answer to an IDiot about the supposed "holes" in evolutionary theory.

The interview made me think about my twenty-years-abandoned dissertation on poetry and epistemology.

The early Renaissance Doctors of the Church, following Aristotle, taught that we were rational creatures—that, they argued, was the meaning of being made in God's "image." They taught there were two revelations, one being the Book of Nature, which we could read, however imperfectly, because we partly shared our rational nature with the Deity. That, by the way, was the point of considering angels dancing on the head of pin: if angels shared any of our physical nature, the number of possible dancers was finite, no matter how large. Only if they were entirely spiritual, and thus, on the other side of an important divide from us, could an infinite number get their groove on.

This faith in the Book of Nature was probably an important impetus in the development of Western science as well as providing some intellectual justification for poets to speak as if they knew what they were talking about. But when the Book of Nature's more obscure passages, written mostly in the supremely rational language of mathematics, began to apparently contradict Holy Scripture, the Church famously and forcefully objected. It wasn't just the Catholic Church: Milton has Raphael warn Adam not to think too much about Galileo's discoveries. That was the beginning of a long slide.

For nearly 400 years we learned to trust our senses less and less. For many people, any deity became more and more a "God of the Gaps," lord over what hadn't yet been explained—the basis, for instance, of the Intelligent Design crap mentioned above— and rationality itself became suspect as "true depth" came to be considered a property of the inexplicable. Much aesthetic philosophy, with its "sublime" and its pre-Darwinian notions of "organic form," is a child of this loss of nerve. Freud's quackery didn't help, insisting that our motivations were mysterious in an entirely new way, explicable only by arduous guided introspection (the opposite of scientific inquiry). Quantum mechanics, considered in isolation and ignoring the astonishing accuracy of the predictions it makes about the world, contributed to a widespread conviction that the world was irrational and fundamentally subjective. I wish I had fifty cents for every literary misuse of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Schroedinger's cat parable, and Feynman's famous "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics."

They're misused in the same way that the ignorant (or deliberately deceptive—there's no other possibility) opponents of evolutionary theory misuse arguments among biologists. Which brings me back to Darwin.

Evolutionary theory puts us back in the world, and it's even beginning to explain why we're good at some kinds of thinking and not at others. For poets, it's important to realize evolutionary psychology implies that the traditional subject matter of poetry—stories about what it's like to live a human life—is one of the things at which we're very good. We're especially good at understanding social motivation, but this, perhaps unfortunately, influences our thinking about how we interact with the medium-scale physical world. We're good at that, too, but we're too eager to ascribe human-like motivation to other animals and even to the inanimate world. Quantum mechanics is, predictably, extremely hard for us. So is statistical thinking: my iPod knows nothing of either T. S. Eliot or Durham, NC.

I've been reading Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle (online here), a fascinating and wonderfully humane look into the early thinking of perhaps the most important scientist in human history. Considering one South American landscape, he quotes Shelley from "Mont Blanc." Darwin was a near-contemporary of Shelley's, born only 17 years later. Today it's hard to imagine a contemporary scientist quoting contemporary poetry, but evolutionary psychologists are looking to poets and other writers of only a few generations ago, before the post-modern descent into foolish academic frippery. Poets would do well to look to evolutionary biology:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection


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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

At her new blog Every Poet Needs a Patio, Robin Kemp asks for three of your favorite living poets, along with a little explanation. Clicking on the post there gives you the opportunity to help rebuild the New Orleans Public Library— so go brag on your favorites and do what you can.

Robin's patio is now on the left (the wonders of virtual life!), and I've also changed my link from Fresh Bilge to seablogger, Alan Sullivan's new bloghome. Alan is cotranslator, with Timothy Murphy, of my favorite Beowulf, and, when he was active at Eratosphere, the best online editor I've ever experienced.


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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Thanks to this post from the Fool in the Forest, I've discovered the Holy Tango of Literature.

And that's about all I've discovered beyond how frightfully bad the html I wrote 8 years ago can be, and that comments to one copy of this blog show up on both as long as the post number is the same. That last is pretty neat, but this moving domains thing is almost as much work as moving in the meat world. I'm ready for it be over—and I'm shooting for my birthday next month. Wish me luck, because I'll need it.

And if you're reading this at www.mikesnider.org/radio/formalblog, start looking at www.mikesnider.org/radio/formalblog instead. Dual posting is over the first of February now. I just checked the server logs, and when I switch the whole three and a half years gets reposted. So no more posts to the Radio cloud—all new content will appear at http://www.mikesnider.org/radio/formalblog, here.


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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Update: I may not be able to post to both sites. Some computer geek me. Since the last post there listed this URL, and I'm moving here sooner or later, I'm going to make it today. The other sites at the new domain will just have to catch up. Like they'll do it on their own … I don't have time for this!


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This will be the new Sonnetarium. Some weirdness will probably be permanent—permalinks for old posts will point to the old domain, for instance. That shouldn't be a huge problem, since that site will stay online until at least October: it's already paid for. For a while I'll be posting to both sites, usually identical posts unless they're site-specific info like this one.


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I screwed up somehow, and lost yesterday's post while trying to configure a potential new home for this blog, so I'm reposting it. There were no trackbacks I'm aware of, so there should be no need to change links—at least until I get the new domain working right.


Just a quick note on some long and thoughtful posts from Josh Corey (all over January) and Kasey Mohammad (here and here). Kasey's quite right that "lyric" and "narrative" are not in opposition to each other, but the reason is far more fundamental than the difference between "mode" and "genre." Narrative and metaphor make human thought possible. "A Sonnet is a moment's monument" is not a bit of poeticising; it must be literally true. Though the monument (the sonnet) may be neither good nor lasting, it must capture a frame, an episode, a moment in the story of a human life, and if it doesn't, it cannot be good or lasting. The denigration of narrative, rhetoric, and traditional modes is the reason for "the current profusion of superficially 'new-sentence'-style prose poems that aim at graceful or congenially playful "lyric" surreality or abstraction rather than, say, an aggressively coherent dismantling of intellectual, aesthetic, or political ideologies." I'm not sure those are laudable goals, but they can't be done without thinking, and even argument is structured as narrative; even Josh tells a story about why he dislikes narrative in poetry.

I suspect the academic distrust of narrative has a partial explanation in what Jonathan Mayhew says about plot summaries as structural elements of the criticism of novels. If that's what you do with a poem, there's not much to say, and how do you justify making your students come to class?


Here are two recent pieces, one a slide show at Slate and the other an essay by Denis Dutton, at least indirectly related to the above. Mark Turner's The Literary Mind should be on every poet's bookshelf. And Josh, if you want to stop time from disappearing in poetry, try meter.


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Friday, January 20, 2006

Jonathan Mayhew has been making some smart remarks about translation lately, and his latest is a set of firmly tongue-in-cheek (or maybe tongue-stuck-out-and-wriggling) rules for translating poetry. I'd like to add to it:

Whatever the poem's prosodic structure, be sure you don't use it. If it's metrical, make it free verse, and, if it's free verse, make it metrical. If you simply must use meter to translate a metrical poem, make sure it's wildly different in its usual application—dactylic tetrameter for endecasílabo, Old English alliterative for sapphics, and so on. If a poem end-rhymes, use internal or no rhyme instead. If it doesn't rhyme, choose some demanding scheme like terza rima. The sonic devices of the poem have no more to do with its essential meaning than do its rhetorical and syntactic devices.

That said, I must admit that for Liz Henry's second Composite: Multiple Translations I translated an unrhymed endecasílabo poem by Juana de Ibarbourou into iambic pentameter terza rima. The first is, I think justifiable in general: IP and endecasílabo are more or less the "standard" meters in their respective languages, English and Spanish. The rhyme is justifiable only by the nature of Liz's invitation: to be formally inventive in translating.

And that said, I must admit that because I had forgotten the rules about how to decide whether adjacent vowels in endecasílabo count as one or two syllables, I mistook the poem for free verse until after my translation was accepted, and I'm accurately quoted saying it's free verse in the publication. I think I'll duck now.


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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I've finally realized that even the 20" screen on my iMac isn't big enough for me to see how poems should be grouped for submission, so I've fired up Pages for the first time, used it to make a submission template, and printed 54 poems all properly formatted so I can see the things and not just hear them in my head. I firmly believe this is not cat-vacuuming (scroll to section 3.17) and Will Lead to Publications.

Another kind of not-cat-vacuuming I do is reformat poems, much as I rewrote terza rima narrative into ottava rima. Here, for instance, is free verse turned sonnet:

Casual Conversation


He said he was an angel
but he didn't look so good.
Asked him what was up
"Not me, man—
This job sucks."
So I bought him a draught
and settled in. "I thought
the percs'd be pretty good—
I mean, unless you're
somebody's guardian angel—
I'd hate to be mine."
"I do hate it, man."
And he drained his mug
and stood up—"See ya, pal."



Some Stranger


3 beers before he'd tell me what he did,
And I just laughed. An angel? Cherub, right?
He lost those rosy cheeks. May God forbid
You meet their kind. You'd wither in that light.

When I heard that the booth got smaller quick.
It made me wonder if beer was all he'd had—
So pale! I asked him was he feeling sick.
He shook himself, and grinned, Not near as bad
As some will feel
. Now that was really weird.
I played it safe and asked about his work—
Not bad to live forever, be revered,
Unless you're guardian to some wise-ass jerk …
You got it, pal. He drained his mug and stood.
I'm damned if I know how to do you good.

And here's a sonnet turned triolet:

Mysterious Ways


I found her on my porch one night, half stoned,
Black-eyed, and broke. I had a sofa-bed,
Where passing out "Will I be safe?" she moaned—
I figured while she snored she wasn't dead.
Next morning came the tale. It was her son
Who'd beat her up and robbed her for cocaine,
And daughter who, not to be outdone,
Had dropped her off with whiskey for her pain.
"No cops," she said before she slept again,
But I called anyway. Much good it did.
That fall the hurricane took everything.
Staying next door, she drained her glass and said,
"My Kenny stole so much from me God swore
To send a storm so he can't steal no more."



Mysterious Ways


My boy just took and took from me till God
Said That's enough! and washed away my house.
I reckon it's because I spared the rod
My boy just took and took from me till God
Had had enough of him and gave His nod
To the hurricane to stop the thieving louse.
My boy just took and took from me till God
Said That's enough, and washed away my house.

I learn a good deal from this kind of thing, but it's not just an exercise or an experiment: Auden was right that poets, unlike painters, don't do sketches. Every one might be the real thing. Usually it ain't.

Blogging, on the other hand, may very well be cat-vacuuming.


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Monday, January 16, 2006

I mentioned I was also making an ottava rima version of my novel-in-verse. Here's a snippet, part of the same scene I posted in terza rima:

Rachel was showing Hank her new tattoo:
Emerald-scaled, diamond-clawed, and ruby-eyed,
A coiling dragon spitting flame into
Her hair, its sapphire bat wings stretching wide
Across her shoulders, ointment spread where new
Gold gleamed from the crack of her ass. "You satisfied?"
"You kidding? That day's the day I'm dead.
Come shake it with me." She blew a kiss and said,

"I can't sit down. Go give your ex a ring—
She's drunk enough by now—or pour some beer
On your right hand and have yourself a fling
With Rosie and her sisters. That mighty spear
Would hurt tonight—unless it's just a sting?"
The usual closing crowd gave her a cheer
As she redid her clothes. She bowed to her friends;
Hank mourned to his open hand, "See how it ends?

It's you and me again, and I'm afraid
If I buy you beer then I can't pay my cab.
We're out of luck and love till I get paid."
Just then a taxi honked. He turned to grab
His coat. "Three weeks since poor old Hank got laid."
The barkeep, Newt, spoke up: "How about that tab?"
"And how would I get home. Don't gut cute
With me." "This ain't no joke. I know your route.

It's not too far to walk, not sober. Come
Across with cash or learn to live that way."
Goddamit, Newt, I ain't no drunken bum!"

Right now it's not too much extra effort to maintain the two versions—big chunks are just drag and drop from one to the other. But I'm not taking advantage of the couplets in the ottava rima, and I think I ought to. That might cause considerable divergence in language, and it would certainly change the tone. I don't want to wait too long before trying that, since the amount of work involved (already enormous!) would just be overwhelming and I'd never do it. On the other hand, it's bad to get stuck in revision before finishing a version of the tale. I think I'll get a whole chapter done in both forms, then rewrite with "real" couplets and not just couplet rhymes in this version. That should be doable, and should help me make the more or less final decision.


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Saturday, January 14, 2006

In a "hmmm, that's pretty cool" sort of way I've been aware of mirror neurons for a few years. I think I first read about them at The Edge), and I briefly wrote here about reading and brain activation based on articles (here and here) that didn't use the term "mirror neuron" but which in hindsight seem to involve them. But last week an article in The New York Times really caught my attention.

It seems that mirror neuron systems in people are amazingly sophisticated, responding to a huge variety of stimuli, perhaps the neural underpinning for empathy (and when inactive, an explanation for autism?), and responding more strongly the more experience the viewer has with the action or state being viewed. According to neuroscientist Dr. Vittorio Gallese, even "[a]rt exploits mirror neurons.… When you see the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini's hand of divinity grasping marble, you see the hand as if it were grasping flesh, he said. Experiments show that when you read a novel, you memorize positions of objects from the narrator's point of view." That last is extraordinary.

Mark Turner, George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and others have argued that mental experience is based on bodily metaphor and action, on narrative built from bodily experience. Mirror neurons seem to provide a neurological basis for their claims, and if I were with my books in Maryland I'd be combing their indices for the term. If they are right, and if current work on mirror neurons proves as deeply implicative as it seems to me, it may provide a stronger theoretical underpinning for trust in our ability to understand other people's motivations and actions and, it must be admitted, a methodology for manipulating that ability. But that manipulation is just what writers have always done.

Systematic frustration of such systems is one of the hallmarks of the post-avant (I still love the unintended meaning of that phrase: "after the front.") I'd bet that explains why those who pursue such strategies become increasingly devoted to them, just as sports players respond more strongly ("hooked," the article says) to watching that sport than do non-players. The same applies, of course, to metricians and storytellers like me. But the other side is that all normal human beings play at narrative and rhythm. Doesn't make one better than the other in any aesthetic sense, but it has implications for just who the possible audience may be.


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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Two new links on the left: Jeff Newberry's Muse of Fire, which I thought I'd added months ago, and a new poetry book blog from HarperCollins, CruelestMonth.com.


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About a year ago I started thinking about a novel-in-verse, a murder mystery/ghost story/urban fantasy/satire, written in terza rima (or maybe ottava rima). I posted my plea to the muse. I tried writing straight to verse and it didn't work, so I've done some outlining, some character sketches, an some prose drafts, and this last month I've actually done some work on the versification. Here's about half of the first draft of the first scene:

Rachel was showing Hank her brand new tat —
Emerald scaled, sapphire-clawed and ruby-eyed,
A dragon curling from her ass, its bat

Wings slicing moon and comet, stretching wide
Across her shoulders, shiny with ointment spread
Wherever new gold gleamed. "You satisfied?"

"You kidding, Rachel? That's the day I'm dead.
I've got to know if you can shake that thing."
She rolled her eyes, then blew a kiss and said,

"I can't sit down. Go give your ex a ring —
She's drunk enough by now — or pour some beer
On your right hand and have yourself a fling

With Rosie and her sisters. I'm out of here."
She pulled her clothes together, waved to her friends —
The usual closing crowd gave her a cheer —

Put on her coat and left. "See how it ends,"
Hank mourned, and told his hand "Babe, I'm afraid
It's you and me, and if your love depends

On beer, we're out of luck. I don't get paid
Till Friday and I can barely pay my my cab.
It's been three weeks since poor old Hank got laid ..."

Outside his taxi honked. He turned to grab
His coat and stopped, amazed, when he heard Newt,
The barkeep, saying "Hank, how about that tab?

I'll make it fifty, even." "Don't get cute
With me, old buddy. How would I get home?"
"Don't you get cute with me. I know your route —

It ain't too far to walk — not sober. Come
Across with cash or learn to live that way."
"Goddamnit Newt, I ain't no drunken bum.

I'll pay it Friday." "Friday's not today.
I've carried you for months. You pay me now."
"Just what the hell you talking about? I pay

My debts. That tab's before you anyhow,
And since you bought the place from Rita
I pay you cash! No need to have a cow."

"I bought what's owed the place, and I don't need a
Deadbeat like you or Gene or the rest of you
Got tabs to tell me what she did! Yeah, she'd a

Gone on forever letting you slide and she knew
That wouldn't make no money so she sold
Vedanta to me! And I ain't selling brew

To those as has a tab." "That's pretty cold,"
Gene Waldrip spoke — his tab was legendary —
"Is interest next? It's not just cold, it's bold,

So bold that even you might find it scary,
Thinking about your bar tomorrow night
When no one's here but your imaginary

Patrons …


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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Monday I saw for the first time an F-18 being thrown into the air by a steam catapult. It was awesome and terrible in all the meanings of those two words, and a tremendous physical rush. The noise, just 20 yards away, is not a sound but a world, and the intricate dance of three sailors preparing the plane by attaching a restraining device meant to break at 50,000 pounds of force, choreographed by three other sailors hand-signaling to each other, the pilot, and the men 6 feet from the live engines, is other worldly. And it's fast. The second time I decided that my view would be slightly obstructed by another person and took two steps — the plane was just gone. But visually, the actual takeoff was a little bit disappointing. I thought of Paul Goodman's untitled poem:

Our spacemen roving on the moon
(0n the TV screen) are like old pictures
of spacemen roving on the moon,
and this fact is more startling
than spacemen roving on the moon,
our imagination is successful
yet coping with reality
we cannot do it differently.

Sure, my dreams have been in touch
with the nature of things,
both my poems and my nightmares
predict and guide me well.
But what when now I am confused?
Only catastrophe
ever alters the human course
to do it differently.

And the difference now is that our imaginations are now trained (jaded?) by the imaginations of skilled CGI and special effects workers on a thousand films and TV shows. The first time, it looked slow compared to what we see in those imagined worlds. The second time, when an 18 meter, 30,000 kg construct carrying two living men just disappeared while I took two quick steps, shook me almost as much as the engine noise.

I'm not sure what I think about it. But Goodman's poem, which depends on awkward inversions we'd deplore in a metrical poem, has haunted me ever since.


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Monday, January 2, 2006

I haven't put a single poem in the mail. It's been hard trying to decide how to put the 44 of them in groups of 3 to 5, and I've been looking at markets. For the first time in 25 years I've thought of sending some to The New Yorker, since twice in that long ago time I got a hand-written rejection, and I've got the first 80 years of the magazine on searchable DVD so I can try to get a sense of what they're printing this century. But the research has been pretty depressing. Take the year 2000 — not a single poet made a New Yorker debut (only 6 debuts since 1998); of 93 poems, 7 were metrical, and 2 of those newly discovered drafts by Elizabeth Bishop; more than half of the poems were by less than a third of the poets. Here are the metrical pieces and the dates they appeared:

  • 2/21 — Elizabeth Bishop, drafts discovered at Vassar: "Florida Deserta" and "The Street by the Cemetery."
  • 3/20 — Seamus Heaney: "The Augean Stables," a sonnet.
  • 5/22 — Kay Ryan: "Crown," metrical by courtesy. It does rhyme.
  • 11/27 — John Updike: "Optical Hypertension," 14 pretty-much pentameter lines, sometimes rhymed. Not a sonnet.
  • 12/18 — Joseph Brodsky, translated by Seamus Heaney: "Flight to Egypt" and "Nativity Poem."
And here are the poets alive in 2000 with more than one poem in the magazine:
  • Seamus Heaney, 5 (2 of them translations of Joseph Brodsky)
  • Eamon Grennan, 4 (Who is this person? The poems don't impress me.)
  • Louise Glück, 3
  • Kay Ryan, 3
  • Donald Hall, 3
  • Rosanna Warren, 3
  • Sharon Olds, 2
  • Anthony Hecht, 2 (His other poem was free verse.)
  • Charles Wright, 2
  • Franz Wright, 2
  • Galway Kinnell, 2
  • W. S. Merwin, 2
  • Charles Simic, 2
  • Debora Greger, 2 (One of these is "typewriter formal": centered lines in stanzas shaped by typescript length, not syllable, words, or feet.)
  • Eavan Boland, 2
  • Philip Levine, 2
  • Robert Mazzocco, 2
  • Mary Oliver, 2 (Centered lines, both. I find the practice annoying in free verse.)
  • James Lasdun, 2
  • Major Jackson, 2
  • Philip Schultz, 2

Do they still reply quickly? Cause with those stats I ain't sending nothing to them that will sit for months. But I'm close to sending. It'll be a week or two.


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