Best of the Best American Poetry 25th Anniversary Edition

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  • Edition: 25th
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  • Copyright: 4/9/2013
  • Publisher: Scribner

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Robert Pinsky, distinguished poet and man of letters, selects the top 100 poems from twenty-five years of The Best American Poetry The Best American Poetryis the most prestigious poetry publication in the United States and has been so almost from its inception in 1988. Hotly debated, keenly monitored, ardently advocated (or denounced), obsessively scrutinized, every volume in the series consists of seventy-five poems chosen by a major American poetfrom John Ashbery in 1988 to Mark Doty in 2012 with stops along the way for such poets as Jorie Graham, Charles Simic, A.R. Ammons, Louise Gluck, James Tate, Adrienne Rich, Paul Muldoon, Billy Collins, Heather McHugh, and Kevin Young. Out of the 1,875 poems that have appeared in The Best American Poetry, here are the 100 that Robert Pinsky has chosen for this special edition. Each volume in the series is represented, and the result is a pleasure-giving book of twice-honored poems that readers will find indispensable. The Best of the Best American Poetryis proof positive that the art form is flourishing. The volume is a reminder, too, of the role this anthology series has played in the resurgence of interest in American poetry in the last quarter century. With valuable introductory essays by guest editor Pinsky and series editor David Lehman, The Best of the Best American Poetryincludes up-to-date biographies of the poets along with the comments they made when the poems were originally selected.


Chapter 1


Dance Mania

In 1027, not far from Bernburg,

eighteen peasants were seized

by a common delusion.

Holding hands, they circled for hours

in a churchyard, haunted by visions,

spirits whose names they called in terror or welcome,

until an angry priest cast a spell on them

for disrupting his Christmas service,

and they sank into the frozen earth

up to their knees. In 1227

on a road to Darmstadt, scores of children

danced and jumped in a shared delirium.

Some saw devils, others the Savior enthrone


in the open heavens. Those who survived

remained palsied for the rest of their days.

And in 1278, two hundred fanatics raved on a bridge

that spanned the Mosel near Koblenz.

A cleric passed carrying the host

to a devout parishioner, the bridge collapsed,

and the maniacs were swept away.

A hundred years later, in concert with

The Great Mortality, armies of dancers

roved in contortions all over Europe.

The clergy found them immune to exorcism,

gave in to their wishes and issued

decrees banning all but square-toed shoes,

the zealots having declared they hated

pointed ones. They disliked even more

the color red, suggesting

a connection between their malady

and the condition of certain infuriated

animals. Most of all they could not endure

the sight of people weeping.

The Swiss doctor Paracelsus was the first to call

the Church's theories of enchantment

nonsensical gossip. Human life is inseparable

from the life of the universe, he said.

Anybody's mortal clay is an extract

of all beings previously created. Illness

can be traced, he said,

to the failure of the Archaeus, a force

residing in the stomach and whose function

is to harmonize the mystic elements (salt,

sulphur, mercury) on which vitality depends.

He advocated direct measures, proposed remedies

fitting the degree of the affliction.

A patient could make a wax doll of himself,

invest his sins and blasphemies within the manikin,

then burn it with no further ceremony.

He could subject himself to ice-water baths,

or submit to starvation in solitary confinement.

Noted for his arrogance, vanity

and choler (his real name was Theophrastus Bombast

von Hohenheim), Paracelsus made enemies.

They discovered he held no academic degree

and caused him to be banished from Basle,

to become a wanderer who would die mysteriously

at the White Horse Inn in Salzburg in 1541.

After a drunken orgy, said one report.

The victim of thugs hired by jealous apothecaries,

said another. And the dance mania

found its own way through time to survive

among us, as untouched as ever by the wisdom of science.

Think of the strange, magnetic sleep

whole populations fall into every day,

in gymnasiums full of pounding darkness,

in the ballrooms of exclusive hotels,

on verandahs overlooking the ocean and played upon

by moonlight, in backyards, on the perfect lawns

of great estates, on city rooftops, in any brief field

the passing tourist sees as empty --

how many millions of us now, the living

and the dead, hand in hand as always,

approaching the brink of the millennium.



Anxiety Prosody

Anxiety clears meat chunks out of the stew, carrots, takes

the skimmer to floats of greasy globules and with cheesecloth

filters the broth, looking for the transparent, the colorless

essential, the unbeginning and unending of consommé: the

open anxiety breezes through thick conceits, surface congestions

(it likes metaphors deep-lying, out of sight, their airs misting

up into, lighting up consciousness, unidentifiable presences),

it distills consonance and assonance, glottal thickets, brush

clusters, it thins the rhythms, rushing into longish gaits, more

distance in less material time: it hates clots, its stump-fires

level fields: patience and calm define borders and boundaries,

hedgerows, and sharp whirls: anxiety burns instrumentation

matterless, assimilates music into motion, sketches the high

suasive turnings, mild natures tangled still in knotted clumps.





Creepy little creepers are insinuatingly

curling up my spine (bringing the message)

saying, Boy!, are you writing that great poem

the world's waiting for: don't you know you

have an unaccomplished mission unaccomplished;

someone somewhere may be at this very moment

dying for the lack of what W. C. Williams says

you could (or somebody could) be giving: yeah?

so, these messengers say, what do you

mean teaching school (teachingpoetryand

poetry writingand wasting your time painting

sober little organic, meaningful pictures)

when values thought lost (but only scrambled into

disengagement) lie around demolished

and centerless because you (that's me, boy)

haven't elaborated everything in everybody's

face, yet: on the other hand (I say to myself,

receiving the messengers and cutting them down)

who has done anything or am I likely to do

anything the world won't twirl without: and

since SS's enough money (I hope) to live

from now on on in elegance and simplicity --

or, maybe,just simplicity -- why shouldn't I

at my age (63) concentrate on chucking the

advancements and rehearsing the sweetnesses of

leisure, nonchalance, and small-time byways: couple

months ago, for example, I went all the way

from soy flakes (already roasted and pressed

and in need of an hour's simmering boil

to be cooked) all the way to soybeans, the

pure golden pearls themselves, 65¢ lb. dry: they

have to be soaked overnight in water and they

have to be boiled slowly for six hours -- but

they're welfare cheap, are a complete protein,

more protein by weight than meat, more

calcium than milk, more lecithin than eggs,

and somewhere in there the oil that smoothes

stools, a great virtue: I need time and verve

to find out, now, about medicare/medicaid,

national osteoporosis week, gadabout tours,

hearing loss, homesharing programs, and choosing

good nutrition! for starters! why should I

be trying to write my flattest poem, now, for

whom, not for myself, for others?, posh, as I

have never said: Social Security can provide

the beans, soys enough: my house, paid for for

twenty years, is paid for: my young'un

is raised: nothing one can pay cash for seems

very valuable: that reaches a high enough

benchmark for me -- high enough that I wouldn't

know what to do with anything beyond that, no

place to house it, park it, dock it, let it drift

down to: elegance and simplicity: I wonder

if we need those celestial guidance systems

striking mountaintops or if we need fuzzy

philosophy's abstruse failed reasonings: isn't

it simple and elegant enough to believe in

qualities, simplicity and elegance, pitch in a

little courage and generosity, a touch of

commitment, enough asceticism to prevent

fattening: moderation: elegant and simple

moderation: trees defined themselves (into

various definitions) through a dynamics of

struggle (hey, is the palaver rapping, yet?)

and so it is as if there were a genetic

recognition that a young tree would get up and

through only through taken space (parental

space not yielding at all, either) and, further:

so, trunks, accommodated to rising, to reaching

the high light and deep water, were slender

and fast moving, and this was okay because

one good thing about dense competition is that

if one succeeds with it one is buttressed by

crowding competitors; that is, there was little

room for branches, and just a tuft of green

possibility at the forest's roof: but, now,

I mean, take my yard maple -- put out in the free

and open -- has overgrown, its trunk

split down from a high fork: wind has

twisted off the biggest, bottom branch: there

was, in fact, hardly any crowding and competition,

and the fat tree, unable to stop pouring it on,

overfed and overgrew and, now, again, its skin's

broken into and disease may find it and bores

of one kind or another, and fungus: it just

goes to show you: moderation imposed is better

than no moderation at all: we tie into the

lives of those we love and our lives, then, go

as theirs go; their pain we can't shake off;

their choices, often harming to themselves,

pour through our agitated sleep, swirl up as

no-nos in our dreams; we rise several times

in a night to walk about; we rise in the morning

to a crusty world headed nowhere, doorless:

our chests burn with anxiety and a river of

anguish defines rapids and straits in the pit of

our stomachs: how can we intercede and not

interfere: how can our love move more surroundingly,

convincingly than our premonitory advice


garbage has to be the poem of our time because

garbage is spiritual, believable enough

to get our attention, getting in the way, piling

up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and

creamy white: what else deflects us from the

errors of our illusionary ways, not a temptation

to trashlessness, that is too far off, and,

anyway, unimaginable, unrealistic: I'm a

hole puncher or hole plugger: stick a finger

in the dame(dam,damn, dike), hold back the issue

of creativity's flood, the forthcoming, futuristic,

the origins feeding trash: down by I-95 in

Florida where flatland's ocean- and gulf-flat,

mounds of disposal rise (for if you dug

something up to make room for something to put

in, what about the something dug up, as with graves:)

the garbage trucks crawl as if in obeisance,

as if up ziggurats toward the high places gulls

and garbage keep alive, offerings to the gods

of garbage, of retribution, of realistic

expectation, the deities of unpleasant

necessities: refined, young earthworms,

drowned up in macadam pools by spring rains, moisten

out white in a day or so and, round spots,

look like sputum or creamy-rich, broken-up cold

clams: if this is not the best poem of the

century, can it be about the worst poem of the

century: it comes, at least, toward the end,

so a long tracing of bad stuff can swell

under its measure: but there on the heights

a small smoke wafts the sacrificial bounty

day and night to layer the sky brown, shut us

in as into a lidded kettle, the everlasting

flame these acres-deep of tendance keep: a

free offering of a crippled plastic chair:

a played-out sports outfit: a hill-myna

print stained with jelly: how to write this

poem, should it be short, a small popping of

duplexes, or long, hunting wide, coming home

late, losing the trail and recovering it:

should it act itself out, illustrations,

examples, colors, clothes or intensify

reductively into statement, bones any corpus

would do to surround, or should it be nothing

at all unless it finds itself: the poem,

which is about the pre-socratic idea of the

dispositional axis from stone to wind, wind

to stone (with my elaborations, if any)

is complete before it begins, so I needn't

myself hurry into brevity, though a weary reader

might briefly be done: the axis will be clear

enough daubed here and there with a little ink

or fined out into every shade and form of its

revelation: this is a scientific poem,

asserting that nature models values, that we

have invented little (copied), reflections of

possibilities already here, this where we came

to and how we came: a priestly director behind the

black-chuffing dozer leans the gleanings and

reads the birds, millions of loners circling

a common height, alighting to the meaty steaks

and puffy muffins (puffins?): there is a mound

too, in the poet's mind dead language is hauled

off to and burned down on, the energy held and

shaped into new turns and clusters, the mind

strengthened by what it strengthens for

where but in the very asshole of come-down is

redemption: as where but brought low, where

but in the grief of failure, loss, error do we

discern the savage afflictions that turn us around:

where but in the arrangements love crawls us

through, not a thing left in our self-display

unhumiliated, do we find the sweet seed of

new routes: but we are natural: nature, not

we, gave rise to us: we are not, though, though

natural, divorced from higher, finer configurations:

tissues and holograms and energy circulate in

us and seek and find representations of themselves

outside us, so that we can participate in

celebrations high and know reaches of feeling

and sight and thought that penetrate (really

penetrate) far, far beyond these our wet cells,

right on up past our stories, the planets, moons,

and other bodies locally to the other end of

the pole where matter's forms diffuse and

energy loses all means to express itself except

as spirit, there, oh, yes, in the abiding where

mind but nothing else abides, the eternal,

until it turns into another pear or sunfish,

that momentary glint in the fisheye having

been there so long, coming and going, it's

eternity's glint: it all wraps back round,

into and out of form, palpable and impalpable,

and in one phase, the one of grief and love,

we know the other, where everlastingness comes to

sway, okay and smooth: the heaven we mostly

want, though, is this jet-hoveled hell back,

heaven's daunting asshole: one must write and

rewrite till one writes it right: if I'm in

touch, she said, then I've got an edge: what

the hell kind of talk is that: I can't believe

I'm merely an old person: whose mother is dead,

whose father is gone and many of whose

friends and associates have wended away to the

ground, which is only heavy wind, or to ashes,

a lighter breeze: but it was all quite frankly

to be expected and not looked forward to: even

old trees, I remember some of them, where they

used to stand: pictures taken by some of them:

and old dogs, specially one imperial black one,

quad dogs with their hierarchies(anotherarchie)

one succeeding another, the barking and romping

sliding away like slides from a projector: what

were they then that are what they are now:


toxic waste, poison air, beach goo, eroded

roads draw nations together, whereas magnanimous

platitude and sweet semblance ease each nation

back into its comfort or despair: global crises

promote internationalist gettings-together,

problems the best procedure, whether they be in the

poet warps whose energy must be found and let

work or in the high windings of sulfur dioxide:

I say to my writing students -- prize your flaws,

defects, behold your accidents, engage your

negative criticisms -- these are the materials

of your ongoing -- from these places you imagine,

find, or make the ways back to all of us, the figure,

keeping the aberrant periphery worked

clear so the central current may shift or slow

or rouse adjusting to the necessary dynamic:

in our error the defining energies of cure

errancy finds: suffering otherwises: but

no use to linger over beauty or simple effect:

this is just a poem with a job to do: and that

is to declare, however roundabout, sideways,

or meanderingly (or in those ways) the perfect

scientific and materialistic notion of the

spindle of energy: when energy is gross,

rocklike, it resembles the gross, and when

fine it mists away into mystical refinements,

sometimes passes right out of material

recognizability and becomes, what?, motion,

spirit, all forms translated into energy, as at

the bottom of Dante's hell all motion is

translated into form: so, in value systems,

physical systems, artistic systems, always this

same disposition from the heavy to the light,

and then the returns from the light downward

to the staid gross: stone to wind, wind to

stone: there is no need for "outside," hegemonic

derivations of value: nothing need be invented

or imposed: the aesthetic, scientific, moral

are organized like a muff along this spindle,

might as well relax: thus, the job done, the

mind having found its way through and marked

out the course, the intellect can be put by:

one can turn to tongue, crotch, boob, navel,

armpit, rock, slit, roseate rearend and

consider the perfumeries of slick exchange,

heaving breath, slouchy mouth, the mixed

means by which we stay attentive and keep to

the round of our ongoing: you wake up thrown

away and accommodation becomes the name of your

game: getting back, back into the structure

of protection, caring, warmth, numbers: one

and many, singles and groups, dissensions and

cooperations, takings and givings -- the dynamic

of survival, still the same: but why thrown

out in the first place: because while the

prodigal stamps off and returns, the father goes

from iron directives that drove the son away

to rejoicing tears at his return: the safe

world of community, not safe, still needs

feelers sent out to test the environment, to

bring back news or no news; the central

mover, the huge river, needs, too, to bend,

and the son sent away is doubly welcomed home:

we deprive ourselves of, renounce, safety to seek

greater safety: but if we furnish a divine

sanction or theology to the disposition, we

must not think when the divine sanction shifts

that there is any alteration in the disposition:

the new's an angle of emphasis on the old:

new religions are surfaces, beliefs the shadows

of images trying to construe what needs no

belief: only born die, and if something is

born or new, then that is not it, that is not

the it: the it is the indifference of all the

differences, the nothingness of all the poised

somethings, the finest issue of energy in which

boulders and dead stars float: for what

if it were otherwise and the it turned out to

besomething,damning and demanding, strict and

fierce, preventing and seizing: what range of

choice would be given up then and what value

could our partial, remnant choices acquire then:

with a high whine the garbage trucks slowly

circling the pyramid rising intone the morning

and atop the mound's plateau birds circling

hear and roil alive in winklings of wings

denser than windy forest shelves: and meanwhile

a truck already arrived spills its goods from

the back hatch and the birds as in a single computer

formed net plunge in celebrations, hallelujahs

of rejoicing: the driver gets out of his truck

and wanders over to the cliff on the spill and

looks off from the high point into the rosy-fine

rising of day, the air pure, the wings of the

birds white and clean as angel-food cake: holy, holy,

holy, the driver cries and flicks his cigarette

in a spiritual swoop that floats and floats before

it touches ground: here, the driver knows,

where the consummations gather, where the disposal

flows out of form, where the last translations

cast away their immutable bits and scraps,

flits of steel, shivers of bottle and tumbler,

here is the gateway to beginning, here the portal

of renewing change, the birdshit, even, melding

enrichingly in with debris, a loam for the roots

of placenta: oh, nature, the man on the edge

of the cardboard-laced cliff exclaims, that there

could be a straightaway from the toxic past into

the fusion-lit reaches of a coming time! our

sins are so many, here heaped, shapes given to

false matter, hamburger meat left out


scientists plunge into matter looking for the

matter but the matter lessens and, looked too

far into, expands away: it was insubstantial all

along: that is, boulders bestir; they

are "alive" with motion and space: there is a

riddling reality where real hands grasp each

other in the muff but toward both extremes the

reality wears out, wears thin, becomes a reality

"realityless": this is satisfactory, providing

permanent movement and staying, providing the

stratum essential with an essential air, the

poles thick and thin, the middles, at interchange:

the spreader rakes a furrow open and lights a

drying edge: a priestly plume rises, a signal, smoke

like flies intermediating between orange peel

and buzzing blur: is a poem about garbage garbage

or will this abstract, hollow junk seem beautiful

and necessary as just another offering to the

high assimilations: (that means up on top where

the smoke is; the incinerations of sin,

corruption, misconstruction pass through the

purification of flame:) old deck chairs,

crippled aluminum lawn chairs, lemon crates

with busted slats or hinges, strollers with

whacking or spinningly idle wheels: stub ends

of hot dogs: clumps go out; rain sulls deep

coals; wind slams flickers so flat they lose

the upstanding of updraft and stifle to white

lingo -- but oh, oh, in a sense, and in an

intention, the burning's forever, O eternal

flame, principle of the universe, without which

mere heaviness and gray rust prevail: dance

peopling the centers and distances, the faraway

galactic slurs even, luminescences, plasmas,

those burns, the same principle: but here on

the heights, terns and flies avoid the closest

precincts of flame, the terrifying transformations,

the disappearances of anything of interest,

morsel, gobbet, trace of maple syrup, fat

worm: addling intensity at the center

where only special clothes and designated

offices allay the risk, the pure center: but

down, down on the lowest appropinquations, the

laborsome, loaded vessels whine like sails in

too much wind up the long ledges, the whines

a harmony, singing away the end of the world

or spelling it in, a monstrous surrounding of

gathering -- the putrid, the castoff, the used,

the mucked up -- all arriving for final, assessment,

for the toting up in tonnage, the separations

of wet and dry, returnable and gone for good:

the sanctifications, the burn-throughs, ash free

merely a permanent twang of light, a dwelling

music, remaining: how to be blessed are mechanisms,

procedures that carry such changes! the

garbage spreader gets off his bulldozer and

approaches the fire: he stares into it as into

eternity, the burning edge of beginning and

ending, the catalyst of going and becoming,

and all thoughts of his paycheck and beerbelly,

even all thoughts of his house and family and

the long way he has come to be worthy of his

watch, fall away, and he stands in the presence

of the momentarily everlasting, the air about

him sacrosanct, purged of the crawling vines

and dense vegetation of desire, nothing between

perception and consequence here: the arctic

terns move away from the still machine and

light strikes their wings in round, a fluttering,

a whirling rose of wings, and it seems that

terns' slender wings and finely tipped

tails look so airy and yet so capable that they

must have been designed after angels or angels

after them: the lizard family produced man in

the winged air! man as what he might be or might

have been, neuter, guileless, a feathery hymn:

the bulldozer man picks up a red bottle that

turns purple and green in the light and pours

out a few drops of stale wine, and yellow jackets

burr in the bottle, sung drunk, the singing

not even puzzled when he tosses the bottle way

down the slopes, the still air being flown in

in the bottle even as the bottle dives through

the air! the bulldozer man thinks about that

and concludes that everything is marvelous, what

he should conclude and what everything is: on

the deepdown slopes, he realizes, the light

inside the bottle will, over the weeks, change

the yellow jackets, unharmed, having left lost,

not an aromatic vapor of wine left, the air

percolating into and out of the neck as the sun's

heat rises and falls: all is one, one all:

hallelujah: he gets back up on his bulldozer

and shaking his locks backs the bulldozer up


dew shatters into rivulets on crunched cellophane

as the newly started bulldozer jars a furrow

off the mesa, smoothing and packing down:

flattening, the way combers break flat into

speed up the strand: unpleasant food strings down

the slopes and rats' hard tails whirl whacking

trash: I don't know anything much about garbage

dumps: I mean, I've never climbed one: I

don't know about the smells: do masks mask

scent: or is there a deodorizing mask: the

Commissioner of Sanitation in a bug-black caddy

hearse-long glisters creepy up the ziggurat: at

the top his chauffeur pops out and opens the

big back door for him: he goes over a few feet

away, puts a stiff, salute-hand to his forehead

and surveys the distances in all depths: the

birds' shadows lace his white sleeve: he

rises to his toes as a lifting zephyr from the

sea lofts a salt-shelf of scent: he approves: he

extends his arm in salute to the noisy dozer's

operator, waves back and forth canceling out

any intention to speak, re-beholds Florida's

longest vistas, gets back into the big buggy

and runs up all the windows, trapping, though,

a nuisance of flies: (or, would he have run

the windows down: or would anyone else have:

not out there: strike that:) rightness, at

any rate, like a benediction, settles on the

ambiance: all is proceeding: funding will be

continued: this work will not be abandoned:

this mound can rise higher: things are in order

when heights are acknowledged; the lows

ease into place; the wives get back from the laundromat,

the husbands hose down the hubcaps; and the

seeringly blank pressures of weekends crack

away hour by hour in established time: in your

0 end is my beginning: the operator waves back

to the Commissioner, acknowledging his understanding

and his submission to benign authority, and falls

to thinking of his wife, née Minnie Furher, a woman

of abrupt appetites and strict morals, a woman

who wants what she wants legally, largely as a

function of her husband's particulars: a closet

queen, Minnie hides her cardboard, gold-foiled

crown to wear in parade about the house when

nobody's home: she is so fat, fat people

like to be near her: and her husband loves

every bit of her, every bite (bit) round enough to get

to: and wherever his dinky won't reach, he finds

something else that will: I went up the road

a piece this morning at ten to Pleasant Grove

for the burial of Ted's ashes: those above

ground care; those below don't: the sun was

terribly hot, and the words of poems read out

loud settled down like minnows in a shallows

for the moment of silence and had their gaps

and fractures filled up and healed quiet: into

the posthole went the irises and hand-holds of dirt:

spring brings thaw and thaw brings the counterforce

of planted ashes which may not rise again,

not as anything recognizable as what they leach

away from: oh, yes, yes, the matter goes on,

turning into this and that, never the same thing

twice: but what about the spirit, does it die

in an instant, being nothing in an instant out of

matter, or does it hold on to some measure of

time, not just the eternity in which it is not,

but does death go on being death for a billion

years: this one fact put down is put down

forever, is it, or forever, forever to be a

part of the changes about it, switches in the

earth's magnetic field, asteroid collisions,

tectonic underplays, to be molten and then not

molten, again and again: when does a fact end:

what does one do with this gap from just yesterday

or just this morning to fifty-five billion

years -- to infinity: the spirit was forever

and is forever, the residual and informing

energy, but here what concerns us is this

manifestation, this man, this incredible flavoring and

building up of character and éclat, gone,

though forever, in a moment only, a local

event, infinitely unrepeatable: the song of

the words subsides, the shallows drift away,

the people turn to each other and away: motors

start and the driveways clear, and the single

fact is left alone to itself to have its first

night under the stars but to be there now

for every star that comes: we go away who must

ourselves come back, at last to stay: tears

when we are helpless are our only joy: but

while I was away this morning, Mike, the young

kid who does things for us, cut down the

thrift with his weedeater, those little white

flowers more like weedsize more than likely:

sometimes called cliff rose: also got the grass

out of the front ditch now too wet to mow, slashed:

the dispositional axis is not supreme (how tedious)

and not a fiction (how clever) but plain (greatness

flows through the lowly) and a fact (like as not) 1993

Copyright © 1998 by David Lehman

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