On Frank Bidart

Poetry in review

Christopher Spaide
Detail from cover of Bidart's book; classical statue of Perseus holding Medusa's head.

It is terribly hard,” Elizabeth Bishop confessed to Robert Lowell, in a letter dated 10 April 1972. She had become “very good friends” with the poet Frank Bidart, a generation her junior. Born in Bakersfield, California, Bidart had moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to study literature at Harvard; while still a graduate student, he became Lowell’s friend, first reader, and reviser-at-arms–“both amanuensis and sounding board,” as Bidart later put it, for the poetry of Lowell’s last years. Now Bidart was set to publish a book of his own, eight years in the making, about everything he hoped to escape by moving east: Bakersfield, the West, his family, his past. Bidart had asked the two senior poets for publicity blurbs; Bishop was struggling to find the right phrases. “His poem,” her letter continued, “is so personal, so conclusive–so definitive, almost (for Frank). I don’t see where he can go after that, really. I wish he’d try something easier. He has such amazing taste and sensitivity about other people’s poetry. I wish he were a happier young man.”

That seemingly definitive debut, Golden State (1973), the seven books that followed, a collection of ten new poems titled Thirst, and several interviews have been published together as Half-light: Collected Poems, 1965–2016, recently named the winner of 2017’s National Book Award for poetry. Half-light chronicles a half-century of refusals–in collection after collection, poem after poem–to try something easier; even if Bidart wanted to, he wouldn’t know how. Happiness (the poems convincingly show, resignedly) is out of his hands, and certainly not the point of the poems, which force their way out of Bidart, spurred on by primal drives, a compulsion as involuntary as breath or pulse. Accepting his recent award, Bidart affirmed, “Writing the poems was how I survived.” The poems make you believe it: you can rarely read more than a page of Half-light before coming upon the same elemental lexicon, tokens of all or nothing, life or death: absolute, being, body, desire, existence, flesh, hunger, necessity, self, voice.

Bidart, you could argue, is one of our great poet-critics; admittedly, the main poet he critiques is himself, and he’s not much of a fan. In an essayistic aside–part retrospect, part self-accusation, part lecture on genre theory 101–midway through the collection Watching the Spring Festival (2008), Bidart finally classifies his poems. As so often in the late poetry, he addresses himself as “you,” a pronoun seethed through gritted teeth: “You have spent your life writing tragedies for a world that does not believe in tragedy. What is tragedy? Everyone is born somewhere: into this body, this family, this place. Into the mystery of your own predilections that change as you become conscious of what governs choice, but change little. Into, in short, particularity inseparable from existence.” He continues: “The radical given”–the body you are forced into, the desires you are arbitrarily dealt, the families and histories you are stuck inside–“cannot be evaded or erased. No act of intelligence or prowess or cunning or goodwill can reconcile the patrimony of the earth.” Bidart’s tragicomic portrait of our condition (a thousand parts tragic to one part comic) gave his next collection its title: the human animal is a “metaphysical dog” (2013). Real dogs, physical dogs, find their bodies harassed by their own urges, crates and leashes, humans’ harsh domestications and inexplicable behaviors: we metaphysical dogs encounter harassments in both body and spirit, in existence altogether. “How dare being/give him this body,” Bidart asks of his family dog, Belafont, less on Belafont’s behalf than for himself: “Held up to a mirror, he writhed.”

Held up to a mirror, Bidart writes. The figure he continually traces, from Golden State to Thirst, is someone crucified upon his own cross purposes: overwhelming hate is pushed back by love; the body craves what the spirit rejects; the deaths of family and friends are contradicted by memory, vivid and unreal. In certain poems he whittles down the predicaments into the blunt contradictions of Is and Is Not, Must and Can’t Be: “the NO which is YES, the YES which is NO—”; “Man needs a metaphysics;/he cannot have one”; “What she wants she does not want.” But the poems are rarely reducible to philosophical conundrums, logic puzzles whose pieces might somehow click into place: Bidart asks existential questions by fully embodying them, conveying their highest stakes in the quavers and ranging dynamics of the spoken voice. Righting his contradictions is as impossible as choosing who you are and what you love–and as “Guilty of Dust” warns in all caps, monumental as the Hollywood sign:




Decades later, Bidart still reiterates his powerlessness before feeling, now with a protracted sigh: “No use for him to tell himself that he shouldn’t feel this because he felt this.”

Bidart’s tendency, swept up in divided ceaseless revolt, is to expand: intolerable propositions, even a single word, can detonate into forty-page sequences and book-length interrogations; Half-light itself can read as a single seven-hundred-page poem, reprising the same obsessions over its fifty-year composition. The most compressed introductions to those obsessions, to Bidart’s civil war with himself, are his translations of poems that seem untranslatably rich with connotation—St. John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul” or the first sonnet of Dante’s La Vita Nuova: “He ate my burning heart. He ate it/submissively, as if afraid, as LOVE wept.” Most instructive of all are Bidart’s three versions of Catullus 85, the famed couplet “Odi et amo” (the classical source, as far as I’m concerned, for the term “love-hate relationship”). Bidart published his first version in 1983, with the subtitle “Odi et amo” (I hate and love):

I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even
wants the fly while writhing.

The next came in 1997, subtitled “Excrucior” (I am crucified):

I hate and–love. The sleepless body hammering a nail nails
itself, hanging crucified.

And the third in 2008, subtitled “Id faciam” (I do):

What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds
the nail that now is driven into itself, why.

Lucky Catullus: he only had to write his poem once. Each time Bidart compulsively returns to Catullus’s poem, a different phrase of the Latin lodges in his skull; each decade he retranslates it, he invents a new, ever more agonizing emblem for self-inflicted torment. None of the translations offer an explanation for that torment, a “why” (Catullus’s quare), or any hope; none guarantees any catharsis. That nail’s not coming out: Bidart cannot undo your torture; he can only let you watch.

The earliest Bidart, the poet Bishop and Lowell met and read, was known not for his images but for a series of radical innovations, each one demanding the next. The first poems arose, as Bidart describes in Half-light’s longest, most informative interview, out of “the necessary subject matter for me at that time,” subjects so excruciating that they needed to be worked through immediately and at length. At the time, the subjects gripping Bidart–violence and violation, homoerotic desire, incest, madness, familial implosion–were transgressive in both polite society and decorous poetry; today we would call some of them NSFW (Not Safe for Work: Bidart might shrug at this phrase), others NSFL (Not Safe for Life: Bidart would love this one). To dramatize those subjects, make them convincingly “necessary” in every breath, Bidart found exaggerated speakers, case studies who could carry his drives, our drives, to aberrant extremes. Betting everything on the credibility and aria-like intensity of the individual voice, these dramatic monologues precisely scored every stress, pause, growl, bark, inflection, disruption, and change in dynamics or tempo. And so Bidart devised a hyperbolic prosody, casting his expressionistic free verse across the page, taking every typographic liberty—capitals, italics, ellipses, proto-emoji combinations of punctuation, letters repelling like M A G N E T S. Premiering all those innovations at once, the first lines of Golden State introduced us to the fictional Herbert White, child killer and necrophiliac:

When I hit her on the head, it was good,

and then I did it to her a couple of times,–
but it was funny,–afterwards,
it was as if somebody else did it …

Everything flat, without sharpness, richness or line.

In high school and college, Bidart hoped to become a film director; these notorious early poems seem like acts of cinematic projection: Bidart’s 35mm aggression shines on the page as the oversized, glaring figure of Herbert White, who quickly manages some projection of his own (“it was as if somebody else did it”). Many have seen the cinematic techniques in Bidart’s prosody–here, a rapid montage of close-ups dissolves at the ellipsis, transitions to the gradual pan of the last line—but the influence is also tonal, generic. One precursor for “Herbert White” was Lowell’s Life Studies; another was slasher flicks.

Today, Bidart is still remembered as the author of his first three books in the 1970s and 1980s, and each of the three is remembered for housing one astonishing dramatic monologue: “Herbert White”; the suicidal anorexia patient of the eponymous “Ellen West” (1977); the crazed dancer and choreographer of “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky” (1983). Each monologue is longer than the one before, more typographically exuberant and yet more assured, and more deeply embedded within history and a textual web of prose journals, headline news, and literary precursors. Rereading these much-anthologized poems, I wonder whether Bidart empathizes with the poor prodigious songwriters of his generation, whose early hits—ear-grabbing, quotable, taken to be quintessential—become enshrined as classic rock staples, losing all context in the process, overshadowing decades of outstanding work to come. “Herbert White,” forceful enough on its own, becomes even more bizarre when the monstrous mirror image of its last lines—

–Hell came when I saw


                                                              and couldn’t stand

what I see …

–opens onto a straitjacketed sonnet, “Self-Portrait, 1969”:

He’s still young–; thirty, but looks younger–
or does he? … In the eyes and cheeks, tonight,
turning in the mirror, he saw his mother,–
puffy; angry; bewildered … Many nights
now, when he stares there, he gets angry:–
something unfulfilled there, something dead
to what he once thought he surely could be–

Is this self-portrait a mirror image of the dramatic monologue, just as “Frank Bidart” (one syllable, two syllables) mirrors “Herbert White” (two, one)? Is that “something unfulfilled” achieved by Herbert White; is Herbert’s hell in store for Frank? (The sonnet ends, “Sick of being decent, he craves another/crash. What reaches him except disaster?”) Bidart, apprehensively self-questioning (“or does he?”), never relieves the friction between incompatible positions, daring readers (and daring himself) to read these poems as facing-page translations.

Read the first three books entire, in order, and the early Bidart seems less consistent yet more various, and somehow stranger. Yes, he was the self-schooled method actor, vanishing wholly inside his roles, but Bidart succeeded as several other kinds of poets as well: a Poundian, digging to the roots of Western literature, retranslating the openings of Genesis and the Aeneid; an American documentarian of region (“California Plush”) and race (“Book of Life”); an unconvinced elegist, mourning the same losses anew in every book; a forerunner of today’s poetics of disability, who considered anorexia (“Ellen West”) and limb loss (“The Arc”) not as opportunistic metaphors but as realities—physical, medical, social—deserving of dignity in their own right. Central to all these endeavors was capturing the voice, the inimitable grain, of an individual who deviates from decorum, convention, or received wisdom (though not all speakers deviate in the same ways, as some earlier reviewers—who grouped gay men and amputees alongside serial killers and rapists–seemed to believe).

Yet half-light, coming from Bidart, is never an insufficiency. It is a “grace”: a place where knowledge can be glimpsed, secrets kept; where the living and the dead remain equally, dreamily, in view.

A seismic event rattles Bidart’s poetics, evidenced in his first collection, In the Western Night (1990), and his next book, Desire (1997): the shift of any tectonic plate forced a rearrangement of every other. One story you could tell about the second half of Bidart’s career–and its longer, more variegated, more traditionally lyric books—is that he rethought what a poetry book should do, how it could develop leitmotifs, recycle phrases, imply arguments over arrangements of poems. Like a concept album or a documentary series, each of his last five collections devotes itself to one subject, one obsession that has shaped Bidart’s life, any life: the titles Desire and Thirst name their subjects; other recent collections examine beauty, embodiment, and the fundamental activity of making (art, love, war, poetry, meaning). Another story you could tell is that Bidart found his operatic range too excessive, his poetics too ruptured, his typography too garish for the genres that now struck him as “necessary”: the love poem, the reminiscence, the elegy, the address to the dead, the AIDS memorial, the incantation, the curse. Without meaning to, Bidart retrained his voice: every day for two years, going through six reams of computer paper, Bidart typed and retyped drafts of his poem “A Coin for Joe, with the Image of a Horse; c. 350–325 B.C.,” each revision another step toward a softer voice, suitable for gift-giving and dedication, cherishing the living and memorializing the dead. Here’s still another story: Bidart, consumed by personal history and private losses, no longer needed to invent a new character for every poem. Why dress up as Herbert White or Ellen West when he could play the role of a lifetime, Frank Bidart?

To speak as “Frank Bidart,” even in a Frank Bidart poem, is still a performance. Bidart forgoes much of conventional poetic artifice—sensuous imagery and painterly observation, consonant rhyme and formal finish, surface lightness and unraveling conceits—but the skeletal style that remains is still labored over, deliberately sculpted, nowhere near natural speech. Increasingly, his recent poems make patterns of unsettlement: they alternate single lines and couplets and allow lines to fluctuate widely in length, between single words and breathless bursts. Regular meter promises not stability but unbreakable cycles of thought or behavior. “Queer,” from Metaphysical Dog, replays the same self-doubts over and over, a skipping record:

For each gay kid whose adolescence

was America in the forties or fifties
the primary, the crucial


forever is coming out–
or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.

Bidart capitulates to the pentameter: for another line that is this desolately mechanical, listen back to Lear’s dying breaths: “Never, never, never, never, never!” Exact repetition, perfect rhyme, smoothed-off stanzas: for Bidart, these structures mirror fearful symmetries. A later elegy in Metaphysical Dog, “For the AIDS Dead,” reads entire:

The plague you have thus far survived. They didn’t.
Nothing that they did in bed that you didn’t.

Writing a poem, I cleave to “you.” You
means I, one, you, as well as the you

inside you constantly talk to. Without
justice or logic, without

sense, you survived. They didn’t.
Nothing that they did in bed that you didn’t.

Life and death gratingly off-rhyme (“you survived. They didn’t”) even as the sex lives of Bidart and the AIDS dead form a couplet, terribly perfect. The straightforward equation of “Guilty of Dust”–“what you love is your fate”–has been punishingly overturned by the plague: your fate is without justice, logic, sense, whether it kills you or leaves you alive, a “you” with no one to talk to but “you.”

The early monologues were analogue technologies: Bidart’s pen, a diamond-tipped needle, faithfully followed a voice’s every modulation, every up and down. Since Desire, Bidart more readily distances himself, speaking to “you,” or of “Frank,” or as “we”—we makers, we mortals. Now Bidart can write entirely in seamlessly eloquent prose, his sentences separated in space like projector slides, as in Desire’s “Borges and I,” which begins: “We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.” “Borges and I” tests that general principle with the case of one self-deluding poet: “Frank had the illusion, when he talked to himself in the clichés he used when he talked to himself, that when he made his poems he was changed in making them.” At its end, the essay-poem reiterates its thesis but adds one further sentence about its own “pre-existing form,” now changed utterly by Bidart’s influence: “Everything in art is a formal question, so he tried to do it in prose with much blank white space.”

In other modes, Bidart marshals a collective “we” under the banners of rage and recrimination. His subjects—violence, power, gender, sexuality—have been political from the start, but his recent poems freely zoom out from the body to the body politic, registering atrocity on the scale of nations, wars, the entire earth. In the zombie-movie dream-vision of “To the Republic,” dated 2005, the Gettysburg dead have risen again:

risen disconsolate that we
now ruin the great work of time,

they roll in outrage across America.

You betray us is blazoned across each chest.
To each eye as they pass: You betray us.

Bidart counts himself among the twenty-first-century betrayers, complicit in the American empire: “Assaulted by the impotent dead, I say it’s/their misfortune and none of my own.” The living, vacantly watching, seem nearly as impotent as the dead; is recording this nightmare-vision, Bidart must wonder, one more mode of passive betrayal?

The paradox of double exposure—simultaneously prophetic and retrospective, “To the Republic” looks straight ahead and sees the past–pervades these latest poems. Whether replaying his own history or his country’s, attending to the living or counting his losses, Bidart now sees past and present as equal, competing realities:

don’t worry I know you’re dead
but tonight

turn your face again
toward me [“The Yoke”]

The latest collections introduce us to Bidart in old age, but also Bidart the child, the adolescent, the undergraduate: here he wonders what, if anything, has changed in the decades between. The sestina “If See No End In Is”—the title strings together the end-words—begins and ends on the same proverb: “What none knows is when, not if.” True for Bidart today, “Now that your life nears its end”; true, as well, for the closeted boy he once was: “even at eleven, what you love is/what you should not love, which endless bullies in-/tuit unerringly.” Sounding nothing like Bishop’s peerless “Sestina,” “If See No End In Is” might show Bidart seeing his own uncomprehending youth in her quiet child, obsessively drawing “another inscrutable house,” preyed on by unyielding, indecipherable orders.

Everything Bidart can do—every mode and innovation, every experiment in verse and prose, drama and lyric—has found its way into his unprecedented and unthinkably bizarre sequence, the Hours of the Night. In In the Western Night he retells the Egyptian myth that gives the poems their overarching structure and urgent stakes: every night, the sun “must/journey through/the world that is beneath the world,—/ … must/meet, once again, the dead.” As Bidart reconceives the myth, the prospect of enlightenment has set, and before it can rise again we must pass through the twelve hours of the Western night and the twelve territories of the underworld; each of Bidart’s sequences traverses one hour, one hellish territory of our benighted condition. If he keeps up the pace—“The First Hour of the Night” arrived in 1990; the most recent, the “Fourth Hour,” in 2015—the project should be done by 2082. (Bidart must find this heartening: an unfinishable task for an insoluble problem.)

The “First Hour” took as its subject the entirety of Western metaphysics, its failure to produce encompassing conceptual systems: much of it screens a Felliniesque “dream of the history of philosophy,” as major philosophers from Pythagoras to Schopenhauer bicker, form cliques, tout their self-interested theories, and reach no conclusions. The “Second Hour,” retelling the Ovidian tale of Myrrha and her incestuous pursuit of her father, Cinyras, explores sex; the “Third Hour,” in a glimpse of clarity rare in these patchwork epics, asks: “After sex & metaphysics,–/… what?//What you have made.” Those same three subjects, in that order, may replay Bidart’s fixations more than readers’ own: not to brag, but I tend not to sweat the collapse of metaphysics, happy to imagine my philosophers squaring off just as Monty Python did—a soccer match, Greeks 1–Germans 0.

“The Fourth Hour of the Night,” the centerpiece of Thirst, is the most formally clarified addition yet: hewing to favorite forms (oscillations between couplets and single lines, sentence-sized prose blocks), it centers on the youth of the orphaned warrior Temujin, before he became “the conqueror of the world,” Genghis Khan. In a frame-narrative, the “Great Khan”–injured, in sight of death, unwilling as ever to surrender his power–questions the Daoist master Ch’ang-ch’un about a fabled cure, “the elixir/that allows men to cheat death”; that narrative is framed, in turn, by the vatic utterances of Bidart, or whichever history-containing maker conceives the Hours, chewing over his two central terms: “Out of scarcity,–/… being”; “Scarcity is the mother of being.” The “Fourth Hour” dispenses with many of its predecessors’ resources—dramatic monologues, meticulously scored voices, cross-cuttings between narratives—but it gains from its resonance with the earlier Hours: like the First, it surveys the history of philosophy (Eastern now, not Western) and comes up short; like the Second and Third, it dives, in its intensest moments, into a network where creation, desire, and violence entangle inextricably. But if in the first three Hours, Bidart could name his central subject–metaphysics, sex, “what you have made”—now he lacks even that knowledge: the “Fourth Hour,” this “Hour in which betrayal and slavery/are the great teachers,” is also the “Hour from which I cannot wake.” From Temujin’s “scarcity,” his early bereavements and youthful frustrations, Bidart can trace the “being” of a merciless conqueror and his unmatched empire. But how we might wake from that nightmare, what lasting lessons “betrayal and slavery” can impart, Bidart cannot say.

The surprise in reading the Hours and the recent lyrics side by side is that the two endeavors have nearly all the same virtues. The lyrics boast the ambition and world-historical scope of poems fifty times their length; the Hours exercise Bidart’s discipline for compression, crystallizing around tense aphorisms: “Human beings//live by killing other living beings”; “Even the conqueror of the world/is powerless against the dead.” “The Fourth Hour,” especially, glides easily from the history of great men into the present-day mayhem of poems like “In the Republic,” deducing from the Khan’s conquests a contemporary rhetoric of genocide and the national security state: “Extermination/is not a question of vengeance. It is a question of//safety. Of not allowing what happened to happen.” And the “Fourth Hour” continually intersects with the personal: the core unfulfillment for Temujin, the scarcity conferring being, is his unconsummated desire for his friend, fellow tribal leader, and eventual rival, Jamuqa. “They swore they were anda,//brothers,” in their youth; later, as adults and victorious commanders, the anda celebrated, but only so much:

They were too drunk, too happy. Jamuqa
pulled a blanket over himself and Temujin.

They lay all night under the same blanket.

For either to have expressed desire, to have
reached, would have been to offer the object of desire

power. It could not be done.

Bidart has sketched this scene before, mining a personal memory for its precious worth: first in Star Dust (2005), where it seemed to be one possible chance at happiness, then even more poignantly in Thirst and in Half-light’s title poem. In retrospect, that memory appears to be Bidart’s only chance at happiness, his archetypal could-have-been:

That crazy drunken night I
maneuvered you out into a field outside of

Coachella–I’d never seen a sky
so full of stars, as if the dirt of our lives

still were sprinkled with glistening
white shells from the ancient seabed

beneath us that receded long ago.
Parallel. We lay in parallel furrows.

–That suffocated, fearful
look on your face.

Parallel lines never intersect in the real plane; these two men, already half-buried in their furrows, never did meet soberly, candidly, fearlessly, in life: “Jim, yesterday I heard your wife on the phone/tell me you died almost nine months ago.//Jim, now we cannot ever.” Maybe beyond life, in some make-believe reunion, the two could find openness, find intimacy:

When I tell you that all the years we were
undergraduates I was madly in love with you

you say you
knew. I say I knew you


It is as though Bidart, now in his seventies, could finally write as a blushing adolescent, his heart bared, his words “weirdly jolly.” The fiction does not last long: “You say/There was no place in nature we could meet … No place//in nature, given our natures.” The rare Bidart lyric to play out its wish fulfillment, “Half-light” ends by casting it off: “That light I now envy/exists only on this page.”

The latest poems revisit, now for his sixth decade, the same obsessions: they must be familiar, all of them, to Bidart’s readers, whose interpretative chops he teases in “Thirst”: “I hope you’re guessing Orgasm, or Love, or Hunger for the Absolute, or even The Sublime–.” But in other recent poems Bidart tries on new tones and tactics, or at least acknowledges the lacks and strains of his art. In the meta–love poem “For an Unwritten Opera” he wishes he could address “a secret love” in the “sweet lingo O’Hara and Ashbery//teach,” gabby and giddy: “That’s not how you naturally speak.” Unless you count awkward, is-he-seriously-this-dark giggles, much of Bidart has no laughs whatsoever, but the recent poem “He Is Ava Gardner” is funny for its title and extended conceit, its deadpan appreciation of the ludicrous Gardner movie Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, and its catty relationship wisdom presented as metaphysical truth: “Fucked up, you knew you’d never fall for someone/not fucked up.” Half-light’s last poem, “Visions at 74,” floating in trancelike orbit around earth, includes something the author of “Herbert White” never could have imagined: a glimpse of unviolated, delightful beauty. “The planet turns there without you, beautiful… . To love existence/is to love what is indifferent to you//you think, as you watch it turn there, beautiful.” Reason enough to stay alive, to thrive on “constant/rage at the constant prospect of non-being.” Rage won’t stall non-being’s unannounced arrival, but it isn’t here yet, as Bidart notes in the impassive anecdote, almost a joke, that closes Half-light:

Sometimes when I wake it’s because I hear
a knock. Knock,
Knock. Two
knocks, quite clear.

I wake and listen. It’s nothing.

Terribly hard as the task proved, Bishop eventually finished a blurb for Golden State: “Just possibly, Frank Bidart has achieved, in his first book, exactly what all young poets would like to: he has discovered and brought together a set of images, emotionally disturbing, apparently disparate, but in combination having the uncanny power of illuminating the poet’s personal history and History itself, literary life and plain Life, at the same time.” True enough for that young poet’s first book, which Bishop feared was so conclusive, so definitive; even truer of this ninth, comprehensive book and the cumulative Bidart we know today. In the newest poems, “personal history” extends from childhood to those never-forgotten nights in California, through to old age, past death; “History” reaches back to Gettysburg, the Great Khan, “the ancient seabed//beneath us that receded long ago.” His illuminations of life, as this book’s title suggests, are never total. Yet half-light, coming from Bidart, is never an insufficiency. It is, as he wrote in “The Second Hour of the Night,” a “grace”: a place where knowledge can be glimpsed, secrets kept; where the living and the dead remain equally, dreamily, in view; where a poet who carried us toward such extremes can hover with us, for a while, in between.

Christopher Spaide is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. His essays, reviews, and poems have appeared in Contemporary Literature, Harvard Review, Poetry, and elsewhere.
Originally published:
November 1, 2017


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