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Parables For The Pouring Rain by Paul Sutton (BlazeVOX)

Parables For The Pouring Rain by Paul Sutton (BlazeVOX)

Paul Sutton’s Parables for the Pouring Rain draws together recent work from the Oxford based poet. Sutton is an intriguing figure, one of his main concerns, revealing ‘how dull and pointless most “mainstream” poetry seems1’ has left him largely ostracised from “mainstream” poetry. Although no doubt he’s delighted by this ostracism, it is a shame because his poetry is rich and entertaining. Whether Sutton is better or worse than the mainstream he despises is another question, but his poetry is certainly different, which is something to be cherished. Sutton is, at the very least, a poet who deserves to be read.
There are poets who like to show the world at its best, Sutton is a poet who likes to show the world at its worst. This makes for gripping poetry. Elites, in all their forms, are the naturally enemy of Sutton. Opening salvo ‘Authoritarian centre’ demonstrates:

An elite that is ignored feels it needs to attack:
“We who have given so much. Universal suffrage is
disastrous – there’s no point granting free speech to
those who have nothing to say.

At first glance Sutton’s target may seem to be the political class. However, the Helleresque slogan: ‘free speech to / those who have nothing to say’ seems such a glorious backhander to “mainstream” poetry that Sutton’s attack must be multifarious. The poem reaches its crux in ‘I had a friend who married a working-class man. He beat her daily, posted / it online….that’s why I write’ (italics in original). This is all parody. Sutton identifies a weak point: the middle class poet’s glaring need for authenticity, then uses it to make his target look ridiculous. However, as a graduate of Jesus College, Sutton himself is surely part of the elite. Sutton has defended himself from this before, saying his poetry ‘makes no attempt to put me (the “poet”) above these, instead I’m participating2’. Whether he himself is implicated in ‘Authoritarian centre’ is debatable, his criticisms would seem to place him above the credibility hungry poet, rather than equal. Qualms over the moral high-ground aside, what is indisputable is the impact of the poem, it is a powerful start to the collection, proudly lifting two fingers up at anyone looking to be triggered.

“Angry poems” like ‘Authoritarian centre’ only make up a small proportion of Sutton’s repertoire, which might be a surprise to his enemies. Perhaps the mainstay of Parables for the Pouring Rain are lyrical, non-confrontational poems with a bittersweet sentimentality. ‘In a doll’s house’ is short enough to include in full:

In dreams of living with pistols.
We all did, firing at the white walls.

A child doll is brought to me:
tiny, dead-eyed, the only colour
blood up its nose. Then cradled,

her body emerging in warmth;
‘pink-budded life is too simple.’

The poem displays one of Sutton’s go to techniques: to take something delicate: a ‘child doll’ and to expose it to something cruel: the blood up its nose. It is a tale of innocence lost: the white walls are shot, the child doll’s tiny eyes are dead. The speaker protects the child doll, cradling it, nursing it back to life, before the last line scatters the meaning and the reader returns to the top. Why is the speaker so keen to protect the child doll? Is it because of guilt or an honest inclination? Why a ‘child doll’ and not a child or a doll? The poems brevity leaves these questions unanswered but that they are present shows the level of intrigue Sutton creates in just seven lines.
Sutton can be a poet of real human warmth. ‘Inorganic’, the first poem in a sequence dedicated to Sean McGrady, a scientist who Sutton met at university, is luminous:

Long first-term afternoons, Inorganic
lab, Oxford blue into violet. Whirring
magnetic stirrers, heart-ache colours
transition metal ions – surely that’s
magic? Somehow it’s passed me by.

Sutton is wistfully daydreaming about the long lost magic, working in the lab with his friend. His concern like with ‘In a doll’s house’, is with protecting the innocent: ‘Let’s worry/ for children, the damage they suffer’. Sutton writes about McGrady’s daughter, left behind for ‘tenure and funding’ in America. Sutton is not really the angry wasp he labels himself as, but rather a sentimental figure, it is a poem for ‘for evening and tears’, as Dylan Thomas described ‘Fern Hill’. ‘Inorganic’ exposes the soft core of Sutton’s heart. The seething rage that typifies some of his poems and the antagonistic persona which has led to him being labelled a ‘bottle-lobber3’, is perhaps just a protective shield. Sutton is loathe to reveal his tender side, yet he does so again and again, why? Because he values its poetic appeal and moreover because deep down, it shows who he really is.

1 Quote taken from Paul Sutton’s bio http://www.blazevox.org/index.php/Shop/new-releases/parables-for-the-pouring-rain-by-paul-sutton-519/ last accessed 30/4/2019
2 Quote from an interview with Paul Sutton conducted by BlazeVOX last accessed 30/4/2019
http://www.blazevox.org/index.php/news/15-questions-an-interview-with-paul-sutton-127/
3 Comment left under a blog post on http://toddswift.blogspot.com/2011/11/inane.html last accessed 30/4/2019

Charlie Baylis 22nd August 2019

Below This Level by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

Below This Level by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

Poetry of any real importance was never going to be the same after T.S. Eliot’s assertion that “A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility” (‘The Metaphysical Poets’). In that essay from 1921 he continued in the manner often quoted as an example of Modernism:

“When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”

It was one year earlier than this statement that Paul Valéry composed his ‘Le Cimetière Marin’ and only a few years later that he wrote some comments upon the composition of that startling account of a peaceful roof in Sète “trodden solely by the doves” and quivering “between the pines, between the tombs” (Tr. Brinton & Grant):

“…the memory of my attempts, my gropings, inner decipherings, those imperious verbal illuminations which suddenly impose a particular combination of words – as though a certain group possessed some kind of intrinsic power…I nearly said: some kind of will to live, quite the opposite of the freedom or chaos of the mind, a will that can sometimes force the mind to deviate from its plan and the poem to become quite other than what it was going to be and something one did not dream it could be.”

From mind to words on a page a transformation is in action and perhaps this is what most of all in-forms Kelvin Corcoran’s deeply moving lyric sequence recounting his experience of prostate cancer; its diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.

The sequence of fourteen poems and a letter opens with a sonnet titled ‘What the Birds Said’:

“I sit by the window and read the poetry received.
I can smell smoke from a neighbour’s garden,
hear a collared dove coo, a buried piano, a distant aircraft.
I can understand these things but in my reading
I lose track of the world in the would-be samizdat.”

Four of these lines from the opening stanza assert the focus upon self but it is a self in motion as sitting moves towards losing track. Awareness and memory are alert to senses of scent and sound but the increasing distance from the opening stasis is felt through “buried” noise becoming “distant” and “understanding” moves in the direction of an underground movement of forbidden publication: one should not talk about these naked feelings!
It is no surprise then that the second stanza should open with a repeated apology: the first being to the poet whose work Corcoran is occupied in reading, the second registering the awareness that “light is draining from the sky” so that “affective meaning has gone in darkness”. Any attempt at distracting the mind by focussing on names (“Rue des Hiboux and Zaventem”) is thwarted by the approaching white-out of snow being forecast. The sonnet closes with the most understandable of returns, to that of childhood when the mother’s song of “To bed, to bed…” concludes with the wise old rook suggesting opening a book so that “we’ll have prayers before we go”:

“a return to first things is forecast – I like that, said the rook,
I can pick at that, I might eat it and then take off into the sky.”

Proximity becomes distance and the act of reading merges with “a distant aircraft”.
Kelvin Corcoran’s poems are deeply moving and they are composed of lyric poetry of the highest order. Prufrock-like he wonders if the mermaids which sing “each to each” (transposed in ‘Oitgang, provisional’ to “Two older nurses” who “work the nightshift”) can be heard “singing in the night / on kitchen chairs in the hospital garden”. And just as Prufrock reflects that “I do not think that they will sing to me”, Corcoran knows the almost overwhelming power of imaginative association:

“Of course there is no garden,
and there is a garden where apophenia blooms” .

This is a major work written by a master and copies should be sought immediately from Tony Frazer at Shearsman Books at http://www.shearsman.com

Ian Brinton 5th August 2019

Grimspound & Inhabiting Art by Rod Mengham (Carcanet Press)

Grimspound & Inhabiting Art by Rod Mengham (Carcanet Press)

Referring to the photography of Marc Atkins whose contributions are central to the whole narrative of disappearances in two of Iain Sinclair’s books Rod Mengham writes:

“Photography is often thought of as a medium that fixes the moment, cryogenising it for future generations, but it can also become the means of showing how nothing is ever fixed, how the moment will always elude us, how all that can be recorded is irrevocable loss.”

Grimspound and Inhabiting Art is divided into two separate sections but as one reads more of the second half one realises how connected they really are. The first section looks closely at Conan Doyle’s novella from 1901, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the second larger section is comprised of twenty-nine short essays on different cultural habitats. Both sections focus on the elusiveness of reality and I am put in mind of Lewis Carroll’s 1872 publication, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There:

“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of it all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty: though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold. ‘Things flow about so here!’ she said at last in a plaintive tone, after she had spent a minute or so in vainly pursuing a large bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a workbox, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at.”

In writing about the Sherlock Holmes story, much of which takes place on Dartmoor, Mengham writes convincingly about the satisfactory nature of the detective tale by suggesting that its allure is the “harmony” it gives “to seemingly discordant elements; the underlying pattern that Watson gives voice to”. In a way this “harmony” is a piecing together of language in which its reconstruction “is what loosens the story’s tongue”. Language becomes a souvenir of a specific history. With a close examination of Conan Doyle’s story Mengham identifies some of the roots of this form of communication by alerting us to the fact that the murderer’s wife, Mrs Stapleton, is discovered bound round the throat and the hound itself attacks the throats of its prey:

“The legend reaches its climax with the spectacle of the giant hound standing over Sir Hugo Baskerville and ‘plucking at his throat; the Sherlock Holmes story leads to the same point: ‘I was in time to see the beast spring upon its victim, hurl him to the ground and worry at his throat’. Up until now, the hound has been heard but not seen, with its ‘muttered rumble’ seemingly dislocated from its source in the animal’s throat. Both in the legend and in Watson’s case history, the immediate object of the hound’s attack is the victim’s throat and the root of the tongue; which is where the voice originates; where language is housed.”

Given this context it is highly appropriate that in the old stone hut which is used by Holmes as a hidden lair there are a few items on the flat stone which serves as a table and they include a loaf of bread, two tins of preserved peaches and, notably, “a tinned tongue”. For the detective as things take shape they become coherent and the historian pieces together a version of the truth. However, as Julian Barnes pointed out “History isn’t what happened, history is just what historians tell us” and in his novel Flaubert’s Parrot Barnes’s narrator recalls the difficulties of seizing the past when he tells us of his experience as a medical student when “some pranksters at an end-of-term dance” released into the hall a piglet which had been smeared with grease:

It squirmed between legs, evaded capture, squealed a lot. People fell over trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process. The past often seems to behave like that piglet.”

When he writes a short essay about the photography of Marc Atkins in 2003 Rod Mengham brings to our attention the artist’s focus upon urban iconography. The photographs of Warsaw record a “city of disappearances” which also brings to mind the terrifying dystopia revealed in Paul Auster’s novel In the Country of Last Things. For Mengham the city brought to light by Atkins reveals a history “leaching out through the stone and brick of a fabric that could not be more distressed, whose patched and stained facades offer maximum resistance to the wipe-clean surfaces of modernity”. This is a city “whose foundations lie in sands and gravels” where the archaeology is all “above ground” and the record of past conflicts appear “only skin-deep beneath a thin layer of badly mixed plaster, apparently designed to fall away in time for each generation to have to rehearse its own strategies for oblivion”.
Grimspound and Inhabiting Art is a fascinating read that invites one to return to it time and time again as the roots of language feel out towards the conversation which had been “begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries” (Michael Oakeshott, ‘The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind’).

Ian Brinton, 13th July 2019

Catullus translated by Roz Kaveney (Sad Press)

Catullus translated by Roz Kaveney (Sad Press)

Catullus wrote some very rude poems. And Roz Kaveney has made some very rude translations of them.

The Rome of Catullus and Kaveney is not one of colonnaded arcade and pomerium, of lush gardens fringing the Tiber and aqueducts delivering sparkling water to mansions on the Palatine. It’s a place of back alleys with ‘come-smeared walls’, where a lover ‘fucks / three hundred men queued up’, ‘sorry dregs’ who wash their teeth with urine in a time of ‘filth, love and death’.

Unlike some earlier translators, Kaveney does not beat around the bush of euphemism. Take for example what is presumably the gold standard, the Penguin Classics Poems of Catullus. Where Penguin has ‘remove yourselves’ (poem 33), Kaveney has ‘fuck off’. Where Penguin coyly refers to ‘services’ (41), Kaveney explains these are ‘fuck[ing] her scraggy arse’. In poem 42, Penguin’s ‘indelicate syllables’ are spelled out by Kaveney as ‘Fuck, felch, quim, rim’.

To be fair, though, sometimes even euphemism shrinks before Catullus’s meaning, as in Penguin’s poem 28: ‘Yes, Memmius, once / you filled me truly / slowly – daily – / with the length of your great beam’. (Kaveney renders this as: ‘My dear commander, Memmius, without oil // to smooth things, fucked me in the mouth and arse’.)

Would you like some more? Here is Kaveney’s translation of poem 16 in full:

Eat out my pussy while I fuck you hard
my hands up both your arses. Silly boys,
you prissy queens, because my verse enjoys
making hot love, that doesn’t mean I’m tarred

with the same filthy brush. I might be chaste
as anything. A poem might say “fuck,”
dabble its fingers in all kinds of muck,
turn people on perhaps, if they’ve a taste

for all that sort of thing. Old men with piles
don’t get hard otherwise; bored wives are wet
reading my verses. But you still don’t get
to think I’m a slut or virgin. Snarky smiles

will get you hurt. Oh, I will make you shout,
fistfuck your arses while you eat me out.

Catullus was a great innovator, one of the ‘new poets’ of the late Republic, who experimented with verse forms inherited from the Greeks. His mark can be seen on the work of Ovid, Tibullus, Sextus Propertius, Milton, Yeats and Pound. Kaveney’s translations are skilfully and unobtrusively rhymed in iambic pentameter; almost a third of them are sonnets, a form received from our own past, of course. Poems 63 and 64 are two of the longer poems that Catullus is famous for. The first tells the story of Attis who castrates himself (‘new girled’ ‘She plucks the last / bits of her former flesh / out by the chords’) to please the mother goddess Cybele who sets a lion on her. Poem 64 is another short epic about the marriage of Achilles’ parents, Peleus and sea nymph Thetis (part of which Virgil appropriated for the Aeneid).

The first century BCE was a time of scandal, chaos and civil war and Catullus’s poetry is ripe with intrigue and politics. Caesar and his lieutenant Mamurrus ‘are twins in sleaze / … You know it’s true. / They’ve fucked each other and they’ll fuck Rome too’ (57). There is bitterness, despair – but also love. For one lover, he wrote (48):

Juventius, to kiss your eyes is sweet,
as honey. I will not be satisfied
with thirty million kisses – so complete
is my devotion, I’ve not even tried
to cease from kissing. In a field of wheat,
harvest the grain and put each grain beside
the kisses I will give you. We’ll defeat
comparison, then kiss once more in pride.

Catullus also translated Sappho’s poem 31 for his great lost love, Lesbia (probably Clodia Metelli) (51):

He’s like a god, I think, or maybe more
than gods, the man who’s sitting next to you,
he gets to watch you. It is almost too
much that he hears your sweet laugh. I am poor

in spirit, Lesbia, because that sound
robs me of sense. It leaves me blind and dumb,
Soon deafness and paralysis will come.
I moan, and stagger, lie there on the ground,

and that’s just when you laugh. I cannot bear
to think of him, or you. And worse by far,
I know the truth, that all my problems are
trivial and silly, lighter than the air

and yet great kingdoms fall through such as this,
an idle dreamer, longing for a kiss.

Catullus, the poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus: some English versions by Roz Kaveney is available from Sad Press https://sadpresspoetry.com/catullus/

Antony John 30th June 2019

The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor (Unbound)

The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor (Unbound)

In The Backstreets of Purgatory, Helen Taylor takes us on an emotional journey that brings joy, pain and laughter along the way. Her mellifluous prose is a joy to read, and each of her characters are incredibly life-like, from overachiever, anxious, psychology student Lizzie to nonchalant, arrogant artist Finn, resourceful but nuanced ex-drug addict Tuesday to crude yet elegant Kassia. By writing each chapter from the viewpoint of each of her characters, Taylor builds empathy for them, creating a distinct, complex personality and set of emotions for each in turn. Throughout the book, there is a clear love for the city of Glasgow, and the book is very much rooted in its Scottish identity. The book is not a retelling of the life of Caravaggio in a modern setting as there is little of Caravaggio in the main protagonist, Finn. The Backstreets of Purgatory is much more about Glasgow’s art school scene and, as such, is a compelling read for its less well known and ordinary, gritty struggles.

A sense of light and darkness throughout the book is embodied in the interweaving of the character’s lives and their community. Her characters are memorable. The relationships between them are sincere and authentic, as well as being complex and nuanced. She creates a sense of family in strangers and shows the relationships between each of them in their complete truth, both toxic and healthy.

By introducing magical realism through the weaving of Caravaggio into the fabric of the story, Taylor explores the idea of meeting one’s heroes. She develops the plot, creating a strong empathetic link between the reader and the characters. Whilst the plot builds consistently, there is a strong feeling of anti-climax at the end with all the characters ending up in a worst place than they had started. This can make you question the idea of meeting your heroes and whether this will truly bring happiness to your life. Caravaggio becomes a violent truth of his time, and Taylor explores the idea of culture not only from the Scottish perspective but also from the Italian sixteenth century side, and the dangers of entering in the shadows of one’s hero.

Overall, this book, which is published by crowdfunded publishers, Unbound, is a strong reflection and exploration of Glaswegian culture. Helen Taylor’s lyrical prose embodies the struggles of the backstreets of Glasgow well and I look forward to her second novel.

Hannah Miller 28th June 2019

Truth, Justice and the Companionship of Owls by Peter Riley (Longbarrow Press)

Truth, Justice and the Companionship of Owls by Peter Riley (Longbarrow Press)

‘Hushings’ is the second group of poems published here and yet again one is struck by the immaculate presentation achieved by Brian Lewis’s Longbarrow Press. It is precisely this care and attention to detail that justifies this Northern Press’s reputation as one of the finest and most professional of the Independent Poetry Presses active at the moment.

There is a quiet and witty intelligence which threads its way through these eighteen poems: the most serious themes of truth and justice are meditated upon within a world of approaching darkness. Writing about humour in Janus: a summing up (1978) Arthur Koestler had suggested that ‘Comedy and tragedy, laughter and weeping, mark the extremes of a continuous spectrum’ and here
just below the surface of Peter Riley’s quiet reflections upon movement and change there lurks the wry smile that can open a poem with an echo of a joke:

‘Two buzzards wheeling over the top of the woods
and one of them says to the other, What
do you see down there, brother,
with your little eye?’

The opening of that second line creates the picture of the joke as it might be shared perhaps in the Hare & Hounds, a pub near Hebden Bridge which appears a few times throughout this collection. However, the reference to a game of ‘I spy’ echoes also the world of childhood which also glimmers just below the surface of these lyrical and elegiac responses to landscape. I am reminded here of Basil Bunting’s comments about music made in an interview with Hugh Kenner for National Public Radio in early 1980 when he suggested that music ‘is organized in various ways, and one of the inventions…was the notion of a sonata, where two themes which at first appear quite separate, and all the better if they’re strongly contrasted…gradually alter and weave together until at the end of your movement you’ve forgotten they are two themes, it’s all one.’ When writing Briggflatts Bunting had perhaps Scarlatti’s B minor fugato sonata (L. 33) in his mind from the outset and the eighteenth century composer’s readiness to modulate between the light and shade of major and minor informs the shift from the spirit of spring which opens the first section and the more sombre note of death and betrayal which soon follows.

In his notes at the end of this new collection of poems Riley tells us that ‘hushings are places where limestone has been exposed and broken for extraction of ore, or for burning into lime, by unleashing a rush of water down a hillside from a reservoir on higher ground’. The eighteen twelve-line poems in the group offer the reader that sense of movement, the rippling effect which Bunting echoed from his knowledge of the Scarlatti sonata, and their sound is ‘always water running over stone’. Movement brings different perspectives and the first of these hushings places the poet’s childhood on the steps of Banks Lane Council School in 1945:

‘a first step into the nation, to be followed
by 68 years starred and scarred with gains and losses
and gates opening upward and pits closing down.’

The landscape here is one of ‘widening regard’ and a realisation that in

‘all this land, this nothing-much, there are
hidden values, seeds waiting to announce themselves
as cotton grass and bugle.’

The wit I was referring to earlier lies bleakly in a comment which appears only two lines above this faith in ‘hidden values’:

‘…Here we wait, as if waiting
for the return of truthful politics.’

And in poem xvi the modulation of the music gives us the ‘end of the chorus’ which is also the ‘end of public truth’.

These poems are in no way infected with rural sentimentality and they are closer to the photographs of Don McCullin in which the images provide their own commentary: they are archways through which the poet can contemplate an intelligent awareness of who he is in relation to the geographical world around him and in relation to a past which disappears down the stone steps:

‘down the stone, down the air, down the darkness
singing Dove sei, amato bene? viewing bright below
everything we have.’

Ian Brinton, 11th June 2019

http//:www.longbarrowpress.com

Psycho-Neurological Poem in 3 Parts & A Clean Heart and a Cheerful Spirit by Felicity Allen (Litmus Publishing 2019)

Psycho-Neurological Poem in 3 Parts &  A Clean Heart and a Cheerful Spirit by  Felicity Allen (Litmus Publishing 2019)

In the State run Panopticon of the ‘Institute of Psychology’ in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest Big Nurse sits at a ‘centre of this web of wires like a watchful robot’. She tends ‘her network with mechanical insect skill’ and knows every second ‘which wire runs where and just what current to send up to get the result she wants’. This is the world of the early Sixties in the United States of America. She works for what one patient calls the ‘Combine’, a large organization that aims to adjust the Outside as well as the Inside and according to Chief Bromden who has been there for longer than he can remember she has been ‘dedicating herself to adjustment for God knows how long’.
Felicity Allen’s astonishing illustrated ‘Poem in 3 Parts’ was written ‘in response to and from recordings made when visiting the Art Studio of the charity Perspektivy, situated in The Psycho-Neurological Centre No, 3’ outside St. Petersburg in Russia. The scene: a confined residential home in which most residents have either grown up or come from other orphanages at the age of eighteen. Qualifications for entry to the home: some type of disability ‘either at birth’ or in ‘early years’. Life inside: ‘the only activities generally offered to residents are watching television or eating. Numbers of inmates: ??? [‘Numbers are missing’].
Sound haunts the fragmentary lines of this poem and we both read and listen to the ‘Caged heirs’. William Blake’s voice of outrage from 1803 gave us a ‘Robin Redbreast in a Cage’ which put ‘all Heaven in a Rage’; Maya Angelou’s autobiographical writings, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings came from 1969; Felicity Allen’s art as an ‘adventure into an unknown world’ is immediate, it is NOW. Her response to a reading of Angelou’s confrontation with a paternal world of sexual violence is to assert that ‘our function as artists’ is ‘to make you see the world our way not / his way’. Art and Music are assertions; look and listen to this remarkable book and foul up those Big Nurse wires as McMurphy does when he runs his hand through the glass window of her Nurse’s Station:

“I’m sure sorry, ma’am,” he said. “Gawd but I am. That window glass was so spick and span I com-pletely forgot it was there.”

Ian Brinton 18th May 2019

http://litmuspublishing.co.uk

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