The Gray Area: An Open Letter to Marjorie Perloff

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Marjorie Perloff




The Gray Area: An Open Letter to Marjorie Perloff by Matvei Yankelevich

July 13th, 2012 reset - +

Dear Marjorie:

I AM WRITING TO YOU personally, because as an admirer of your work — which is grand in scope while specific in insight — I find myself frustrated with a few points in your recent article “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric,” published in the Boston Review’s May/June 2012 issue. I am writing to you publicly, because I feel it's important to complicate the generally black-and-white debates in current discussions around "Conceptualism" in contemporary poetry. I hope that a friendly argument will offer an alternative to the re-staging of an old "culture war" and bring some other things that have been going on in contemporary poetry into the discussion.

But first, let me say that it is distressing to me — as it must be annoying to you, if you read them — to see in the online comments to your piece, which takes issue with Rita Dove’s recent Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, such morsels of American anti-intellectualism as the laconic quip that "honesty is the best poetry," implying that the avant-garde poetry you champion is somehow dishonest. Such calls to so-called honesty come from a place that fears criticality of all stripes and betray a complete misunderstanding of the artifice intrinsic to all poetry. Long before the current Conceptualist critique of "sincerity" and “expression” began, Laura (Riding) Jackson made the compelling argument that poetry, no matter how invested in truth-telling, was always a seduction, and that "poet,” therefore, was “a lying word." It is just such a blindness to the most basic lessons of Modernism — a blindness perpetuated by the big houses, "major" anthologies, and high-school English curricula, and one that you, to your credit, have doggedly countered — that keeps the American mind in the stone age in regard to poetry, among other things.

It's important to start with this point of agreement, because your argument, sustained over the course of many books and articles, about transparency vs. materiality of language has much to do with challenging the still-prevailing amnesia regarding what might generally be called twentieth-century poetry’s linguistic turn. Still, if I may, I'd like to propose a small corrective that may lead to something larger. In your article, you cite the Russian Formalists' notion of "the word as such" ["slóvo kak takovóe"] as one of the things that the poetry of (what you term) "moderation and safety" coming out of today’s MFA programs distinctly avoids. Actually, though associated with the Formalists, the term comes from a Russian (Cubo-)Futurist manifesto and was developed by Alexei Kruchenykh and Velemir Khlebnikov; thus, it originates within a poetic movement and not the (slightly later) theoretical movement that codified its significance.

More important than the provenance of the term, though, is the fact that the same avoidance of "the word as such" can be found at the base of Conceptualist practice, which in your article you set in opposition to what I'll choose to call, for convenience’s sake, "Conservatism": American Realism, Confessionalism, New Yorker poetry, Epiphanism, or what you refer to as a "certain kind of prize-winning, 'well-crafted' poem.” For you, Conservatism resists, denies, or forgets “the word as such,” whereas Conceptualism acknowledges, foregrounds, and celebrates it. I would assert that neither Conceptualism nor Conservatism foregrounds "the word as such," nor, moreover "the letter as such" (as described in another important manifesto of Russian Futurism). Neither American mode takes up the Russian Futurist call to free the word from its usual context in service of greater expressivity. Conceptualism may re-frame a discourse, but it doesn't usually insist on the aesthetic autonomy of its parts.

In fact, if we take Conceptualism and Conservatism as two poles in our current poetry culture, as you are proposing, then the curious thing is that the most extreme examples at either pole converge in one very important way: in the purported transparency of their language. Both subordinate the materiality of language to other aims: for the Conservator, the goal is emotional identification achieved through either narrative, or the semblance of epiphany, or what have you, and for the Conceptualist, the goal is revelation of the framework which governs the text. I hesitate to say that at both points content is given privilege over form, because that binary is part of a rhetoric subject to deconstruction; but I am suggesting that for both models the materiality of language is of secondary concern — a suggestion I will try to develop here.

¤

The most radical claim of the Conceptualist movement — put forward by Kenneth Goldsmith in Uncreative Writing, and by Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin in their co-edited anthology Against Expression — is that a conceptual work need not be read; or, to translate this wholly negative criteria into more positive terms, it prioritizes an understanding of the "general concept" — the idea, procedure, or framework) that generates or encompasses the text — above the experience of reading. Traditional literature, broadly conceived, asks its audience to read the text carefully and take note of all its textures, a point made most clearly by Tolstoy when he famously declined to describe what Anna Karenina is about, because that would take as many words as he had already written in the novel. The conceptual work, by contrast, wants the reader to engage with it on the level of concept, and to examine its meaning in regard to a wider context of cultural production. If that is the case, it would be more productive to speak of Conceptualism as operating with discourses rather than texts. It follows that to take the injunction not to read away from Conceptualism — as you do in your close reading, in your book Unoriginal Genius, of the assemblage of 1010WINS language in Goldsmith's Weather or Traffic — is to divest the Conceptualist work of its most radical gesture, that of the dematerialization of the art object: the very gesture it depends on for its cultural valuation, and its potential canonicity. If your analysis of Goldsmith's text is correct, then the pure Conceptualism of his Weather must be a mere ruse attempting to cover up a respectably Modernist predilection for material complexity (that devilish "difficulty"), and even an embarrassing indulgence in left-over Romantic assumptions of authorial intent.

It's important to take Conceptualism's insistence on purity (procedural, discursive) as self-consciously inherited from the historical avant-garde, just as Conceptual writing poses as "new," as commensurate to technological advances, as truer to its age. The recapitulation (or appropriation) of avant-garde rhetoric and posture is of course interesting in as far as it is self-conscious (an ironic neo-avant-garde is a wider phenomenon that Conceptualism partakes of). But this winking recapitulation creates its own stumbling block, for one because it re-stages the throwing overboard of the classics (in this case Language writing along with Modernism) in a Tea Party gesture, and ends up backfiring in the same way that the avant-garde, in its attempt to overthrow art (pace Peter Bürger), enthrones itself. Hence, Conceptual writing's desire for, or susceptibility to, quick canonization, and its social play of clubby induction and excommunication à la Breton's Surrealism. Of course, pure concepts, like the pure, neo-platonic forms of De Stijl and Suprematism/Constructivism, aren't necessarily the surest reflections of contemporary culture, as much as Conceptualist writers would like to believe their textual strategies reflect their contexts. The seductions of purity may explain Conceptual writing's antagonism toward some of the mixed, dirty, inexact procedures of contemporary hybrid work, and toward messy "creativity" in general.

Conceptualism, in its pure form, must be anti-creative and therefore, by definition, anti-lyrical, or at least a-lyrical. Vanessa Place's Statement of Facts, for example, is by no means a lyric poem. Yet it is the first book in a series called, perhaps a bit pretentiously, Tragódia: in ancient Greek this word (goat + singer) could signify an epic play (our "tragedy"), grave poetry, a song, or an exaggerated speech made by a prosecutor (the latter may be the definition that Place, a trial lawyer, has in mind). In a review of Statement of Facts published in the American Book Review, Anna Moschovakis aptly compares Place's text to Charles Reznikoff's poetry of reportage in Testimony and Holocaust, though the fact that Reznikoff rewrites and lineates his sources is telling of an important difference between Objectivist (material-oriented) and Conceptualist (discourse-oriented) practices. (The work of Austrian writer Heimrad Bäcker would make a useful comparison here.) Moschovakis underscores (through an appropriation of promotional copy) that Place's book is a reframing of "legal document[s] which set forward factual information without argument" as poetry; but not — I would argue — as lyric poetry.

Any "found" language thus (re-)framed may point out some of its aesthetic, extra-functional qualities, perhaps overlooked in its usual context (in this case, the context of the law); however, revelation of "the word as such" is by no means the primary concern or motivation of Conceptualism. In Place’s case, that concern may be ethical or moral, as Moschovakis points out, but ethics and morality are not a concern for The Weather, or for that matter for most conceptual art that I'm aware of. Like much Conceptual writing, Vanessa's book is "without argument" as regards its content. It remains neutral, or at least strives toward neutrality, achieving — in the plain, detached manner with which it treats horrific events — a "writing degree zero" that Roland Barthes, the great theorist of the Neutral, could only have imagined. At its most successful (where it is pure Conceptual writing), it offers no position, no critique. A statement of facts, like a weather report, is just what it says it is; the argument resides in a different place, on the level of classification or canonization: whether or not this is poetry. If it is poetry, Conceptualists like Goldsmith and Place insist, it is so by virtue of the same Conceptualist gesture as when Robert Rauschenberg typed out the words, "this is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so."

Perhaps what we learn from the combination-punch of Reznikoff and Place is that this question — is it poetry? — can no longer pertain to form, nor to content. We can't require of a poem that it have a "poetic" content, nor even that it have line breaks or rhyme or other traditional markers of "literariness," so Conceptualism must therefore attack other, extra-textual notions of what makes poetry: for one, the fact that it is "made" by the author; for another that it must be made at all. When Conceptualism takes the form of Conceptual poetry, it attacks the dominant paradigm that all poetry is lyric poetry; it suggests that poetry need not be lyrical, and that it need not issue from a single, intentional speaker (or, once upon a time, a singer).

So, I can't help but ask the question: If one is interested, as you are, in "reinventing the lyric," why look to Conceptualism? To add to the confusion, your article adduces poems by Peter Gizzi, Charles Bernstein, and John Cage which, while they may contain conceptual elements, are by no means Conceptualist poets. The poems you cite would look like poems to almost any reader; in that sense, they hardly challenge received notions of what makes a poem a poem. The fact that they reappropriate pop lyrics, Tin Pan Alley, and folksong is hardly an advance on Modernist techniques of quotation (Eliot's Wasteland, Pound's Cantos, or Blok's Twelve, etc.). Furthermore, the poems by Gizzi, Bernstein, and Cage are very much "crafted" — a lot more highly crafted, I would say, than the Conservative poems you cite from Dove's anthology. Yet craft, like expression, is something Conceptualism plainly disparages. Bernstein’s "What do you see, Nonny?" doesn't just quote folksong, it aspires to song in its very structure, while the typical Conceptualist poem, quite stridently, does not sing.

If the reinvention of the lyric is what is at stake, then, would it not be more productive to discuss how Gizzi and Bernstein differ from Conceptual Poetry, while still standing at odds with the Conservative poetics that is being canonized and taught in the mainstream for its easily "relatable" qualities? At the same time, in the context of a Conceptualist reinvention of the lyric, a more fitting example might be Rob Fitterman's This Window Makes Me Feel, a 9/11 elegy of shattered subjectivity driven by the lyric intonations of appropriated emotive language. The quintessential lyric position is, after all, that of the subject looking out a window. By repeating a phrase focused on the window itself and not what is seen through it, Fitterman’s poem makes a fascinating connection to Modernism’s incessant flattening of the surface, insistence on opacity, and recourse to the trope of the grid — a point Rosalind Krauss addresses in her The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Myths. Despite its use of procedure and appropriation, this "Conceptualist" work could be seen rather as a lyric poem troubled by the implications of its concept.

The problems raised by Conceptualism will not be resolved by the Conceptualists themselves or by their forebears — such as whether Conceptual writing is a critical "representation of current culture," or simply an agency-less, kowtowing "part of it," as Johanna Drucker has recently suggested (in the Poetry Project Newsletter, April/May 2012) — but they may be addressed by poets spawned by Conceptualism. These poets, may not cling to the purity of Conceptualism, and may even take issue with the political neutrality of traditional Conceptualism (what I think we can begin to acknowledge as a calcified "style"). Much of the new poetry re-affirms the importance of readerly experience, betraying an uneasiness with the pervasive controls of technology (while Goldsmith and others seem to have swallowed the happy pill of the information-stream without hesitation). With this in mind, I think we would all greatly benefit if, instead of falling back on known quantities such as Gizzi and Bernstein, you were to cast your scrutiny on the complexly lyrical strategies of writing and appropriation in the work of Conceptually aligned poets such as Steve Zultanski, Lawrence Giffin, Cecilia Corrigan, Mathew Timmons, and Diana Hamilton, to name but a few, or the "messy conceptualism" of Fitterman, Josef Kaplan, and others, or closely-related conceptual projects of Heimrad Bäcker, UNFO, etc. These "sick readymades," where the materiality of the text infects the extra-textual Conceptualist discourse, may be better read in connection to the grotesque (against the tendency to assimilate them into Conceptually-theorized notions of allegory or the baroque). They may also open up opportunities for more productive comparisons to the practices of plagiarism employed by Lautréamont and Nougé, or Situationist tactics of détournement, which sadly have been expunged, revisionist-style, from the Conceptualist discourse, where its purist practitioners — not surprisingly — keep the floor.

Furthermore, the received notions of literature called into question by Conceptualist works are not held as givens only by producers of transparently worded epiphany poems in irregular lines of verse. To hark back to the Russian Formalists once more, the very notion of "literariness" — and the resulting linguistic definition of poetry as the type of text which most foregrounds its literary markers — is itself called into question by "uncreative writing" as theorized by Goldsmith, et al. The poems of Gizzi and Bernstein, and even Cage's mesostic appropriation of Ginsberg, wear their literariness on their sleeves in a way that Place's Statement of Facts or Fitterman's Bacon and Egg on a Roll on Bleecker Street do not. The "assassination of mastery" inscribed in the practice of Conceptual writing, according to Place and Fitterman's Notes on Conceptualisms, is absent from Gizzi's masterful lyric "Gray Sail," nor is there any failure of poetry in Bernstein’s "pseudo-folk ballad." And though you invoke Craig Dworkin's beautiful discussion of echo and its Oulipian functions in Against Expression, we would be hard-pressed to find in Gizzi's Threshold Songs any trace of procedural writing. Echo, after all, is older than the Oulipo. (Moreover, the Oulipo-connection is a bit of a red herring itself, for Oulipian procedural practice differs sharply from Conceptualist techniques at least as far as the status of the resulting text is concerned.) For the Russian Formalists, echo, like rhyme, would be a marker of literariness, something that marks a text as poetic; whereas Conceptualism could be described as a desire for the marker of a text's status as poetry to stand outside the text itself. (Ironically, by these standards, the uniform, MFA-derived, well-crafted poem of Conservatism, is often so transparent in its language and "prose syntax," that it can also be characterized as no longer being "traditional" — i.e. "literary" in the Formalist sense.)

What I’m pointing to here is a whole swath of writing between Conceptualism and Conservatism — what I call the gray area, in which, buttressed by home-grown American tendencies and European Modernism, "traditional" ideas of formal/aesthetic quality are still the background for interesting things (among some not so interesting things) to be happening. In this ever-expanding intermediate space, forming a margin that is almost as large as the mainstream, one can find derivations of New York School writing infected by politicized Language-oriented poetics, the meme-culture of Flarf put through the meat-grinder of the New Sentence and spiced with Personalist coterie code, new mysticisms (somatic writing, etc.) alongside new Surrealisms, new Objectivisms tuned through sound poetry, new Confessionalisms entwined with new Feminisms, and all their infinite permutations. (I'm not naming names; the lists would be too long for this context. If compiled, their sheer length would help make the case for abandoning canon-formation altogether. A number of journals — among them Lana Turner and the recently defunct Supermachine — offer a good glimpse of these combinatory directions.) At worst, this variety may suggest the stylistic supermarket Arthur Danto foretold for art after the End of Art; poets can pull a praxis of "reception" from Spicer, a fragmented subjectivity from Scalapino, a bit of vernacular from Schuyler, and so on, and may at times deserve criticism (along the lines indicated by Steve Evans in the now decade-old Fence controversy) for not taking into account the political positions to which these various aesthetics were tethered. Yet this Babel-like mixing makes for a much headier, pluralistic, less aesthetically delineated (and therefore more socially fluid) gray area of poetry than that of previous periods characterized by the rigidity of schools, movements, -isms, and political positions, which led (and still lead) to nothing but power-grabs and culture wars. The poets residing in this gray area (hybrid or not) are often receptive to the influence of Conceptualism, making interesting use of its precepts; in other cases they are directly antagonized by it, or antagonistic toward it, antsy about what they perceive to be a call to abandon "writing" for web-based appropriation. In any case, the majority of small press publishing in the United States focuses precisely on this gray area.

For all these reasons, the binary opposition that you set up between Conservatism and Conceptualism needs to be re-examined, if not abandoned. Rita Dove's anthology and others of its kind (designed, it seems, more for high-school curriculums than for MFA degree candidates) are not solely or specifically antagonized by recent Conceptualist anthologies (Dworkin and Goldsmith's Against Expression, and Bergvall, Browne, Carmody, and Place's I'll Drown My Book). In fact, the poets that are critically engaged and/or antagonized in serious ways by Conceptualism are not to be found here but elsewhere: they are more likely to be the colleagues or students of Gizzi, Bernstein, and other authors of the more or less Modernist-inflected, disjunctive, materially-oriented poetry that you have championed.

Conceptualism, in its purest, most radical form, challenges any value based on poetic craft or know-how — that is its power. With its democratizing potential, a kind of Kaprow-esque "anyone can be an (uncreative) artist" attitude that recalls Fluxus as much as Cage, it would seem to provide a powerful critique of all the hierarchies American poetry has comfortably set up for itself. That is why it's a little ironic to see that Conceptualism's staunchest supporters are most likely to be found in the academy and the art institution, and even — I should say, of course — in those very MFAs that you single out as strongholds of Conservatism.

¤

This is one irony of the recent rise of Conceptual writing. Another is that a movement which is so committed to eliminating lyrical charisma has invested so heavily in the charisma of the poet as performer. Performance has become an exceedingly important aspect of Conceptual writing, as it was for Conceptual art, where the ephemerality of performance worked to perpetuate the dematerialization of the commodity-object of art. After all, theater (as you have written before, in The Futurist Moment, for example) is what the avant-garde strove for: the theatricalization of art brings the work out of the rarefied "art world" and into everyday life, in such a way that it has to be approached within a political context rather than as an aesthetic object to be contemplated, bought, and sold.

Is this theatricalized critique of commodity and institution the reason for the professional garb of Vanessa Place (who may arrive at a dive-bar poetry reading dressed as though she had just come from the law office), the well-pressed designer clothes and rehearsed professorial vocals of Christian Bök, or the 80s-showman's suits — reminiscent of Yevgeny Yevtushenko's bright yellow jacket — favored by Kenneth Goldsmith, whether performing at the White House or at the Brooklyn Book Festival? Is the performance of an outsized persona (for example, the way Goldsmith intentionally mines and mimics artists of the past — Warhol, LeWitt, etc. — in his public statements and appearances) intrinsic to the project of Conceptualism? If so, then shouldn't we define the differences between Conceptualist performance and the highly performative "hipster" reading styles of new ("soft") surrealists such as Zachary Schomburg or Heather Christle, or the popular pseudo-conceptual performances of gender by Ariana Reines or Jon Leon (who, according to HTMLGiant, insists on "living... [as] the character in his works")? The performative aspect of these overlapping but seemingly opposed directions in the current poetry suggests a larger field of gray areas that is important to consider, if only because of these poets' simultaneous rise in both academic and "art world" contexts, and their popularity among serious or experimental poetry readers (if one takes Small Press Distribution's bestseller list as a significant indicator). Note also the recent involvements of Place, Dworkin, Bernstein, and Reines in the Whitney Biennial, and the appearance this spring at MoMA of the Conceptualist group Collective Task only six days apart from Reines in the same program. Does the fact that performance (and the development of charismatic personae) plays such a key role in the advancement of these poetic projects suggest anything about the status of the texts themselves, about their dependence on context, or on the charismatic posing of the authors?

I ask these questions not out of distaste for performance or for Conceptualism. But I worry about the incongruence of a conceptually rigorous, degree-zero poetics, which seems to have at heart the admirable avant-garde goal of antagonizing (and activating) the reader and the seeming necessity of mannered performance that sets the stage for a stereotypical image of the (lyric) poet as appealingly enigmatic or "difficult." Is it that, in the absence of formal indicators, this performance of poet as professional, expert, or entertainer is how the Conceptualist poet marks her or his text as "poetry"? Is it that, without a public image, Conceptualist poets would not succeed in attaining a desired canonicity or (to put it plainly) popularity? Shouldn't the notion of authorial presence, and especially a lyric pose, be distasteful to — if not explicitly rejected by — any Conceptualism? And if it is part of the act, then where does the act end?

To delve into the problem of performance, one might look at the work of Moscow Conceptualist Dmitri A. Prigov, which I believe you already know and admire. A sculptor by training (like Goldsmith), Prigov is perhaps best known for a number of poetic series from the perspective of various social positions: poems written as "a lesbian poet," as "a Soviet poet," as "a Buddhist poet," and, one could say, as "a conceptual poet." In every instance Prigov provided a context for reading, a context rooted in a distancing of the author's voice, or even a negation of any such thing as "author" or "voice" in the Romantic or Confessional sense. However, the poems in these series are not dematerialized in the least — in fact, their "literariness" is foregrounded. They are recognizable as poems in a fairly traditional sense, to the extent that their self-parody depends on their use of poetic tropes. Prigov, riffing on the paradigm of Soviet labor heroism, counted each of the poems as production units in his overall project of writing 20,000 poems by the year 2000, much as a bricklayer might count the progress of a wall, brick by brick. He even invited others to give him poems he could sign his name to, in order to speed the completion of his task.

Prigov's trickster-like performativity was indispensible to his project of creating an image of the author, at once contrived, built up and broken down. There wasn't a single moment when one could say about Prigov (whether on stage or off), "that's Prigov, that's him!" But this display of the construction of the self was not just in his performances — for which he was celebrated; it was also in the texts themselves, in their heteronymic assumption of various "poses." This very variety seems to me to be lacking, in a telling way, in the more self-aggrandizing modes of performance present across the spectrum of today's American poetry landscape, but most disturbingly so in Conceptualism, where the extravagance of the authorial pose is in discord with its anti-expressivist precepts, and counteracts the populism that plagiarism (in the guise of appropriation) should make possible. If not framed correctly, the performance of a poetic attitude can make the Conceptualist difficult to discern from the neo-Confessionalist poet who banks on charisma and obfuscation (the poet maudite act) to achieve a desired effect: the satisfaction of the audience's desire for a kind of "authenticity" that is, or ought to be, anathema to Conceptualism.

In 1990, the poet Vsevolod Nekrasov (who by Gerald Janecek's account was a progenitor of Conceptualism in Soviet Russia) proposed "Contextualism" to be a more fitting name for the poetic practices of Prigov and company. The sober suggestion here is that every text functions in relation to its context, and that any clichéd language — language that had acquired meaning through its context (ideological slogans, catch-words, even parts of speech) — could, through re-contextualization, be made into poetry.

Nekrasov would interest you, because his work stands at the crossroads of Conceptualist (Contextualist) and Concrete poetries. (The investigation into the connections between these two fields is an important revelation in Unoriginal Genius.) At the same time, his work is rarely devoid of a political subtext. It does what perhaps Vanessa Place (and some other affiliates of Conceptualism) strives for — political and theoretical critique by way of neutral-affect appropriation — but in drastically fewer words, while also foregrounding "the word as such" in a minimalist, typewriter-based, visual poetics. Furthermore, Nekrasov's works complicate the relationships of appropriation and transparency, context and concept, politics and aesthetics; his poems suggest a heightened materiality of language (to the point of claiming the status of a visual-art object for onionskin paper) while simultaneously putting forward a poetics of dematerialization of the art object. Here context crosses with texture, and the experience of reading is as important as the experience of thinking.

Thus, Nekrasov and Prigov pose a simultaneity of "thinkership" and "readership," rather than opposing one to the other. The literariness of the language in their texts is palpable, presenting itself to be looked at and read out, yet the texts insist on their literariness self-consciously, always keeping a Brechtian distance, so that the framework is kept within sight, while authorship is fragmented and redefined.

This nexus of concerns — in which literariness is conceptualized, but not conceptualized away — seems to me to be the one that is most fertile now for what some of us — those who don't pay much attention to anthologies like Rita Dove's, but read widely in the poetry coming out of small presses — might call a Post-Conceptualist period in American poetry.

¤

As I finish this letter, Natasha Trethewey is announced as the 19th US Poet Laureate. A familiar name (coincidentally?) crops up in Trethewey's bio on Poets.org:

In her introduction to Domestic Work, Rita Dove said, "Trethewey eschews the Polaroid instant, choosing to render the unsuspecting yearnings and tremulous hopes that accompany our most private thoughts — reclaiming for us that interior life where the true self flourishes and to which we return, in solitary reverie, for strength."

So the self is still a place to return to for solace, apparently; and the obsolete Polaroid is still a viable metaphor? The fact that "true self" and "Polaroid" are still in the picture means we have a lot more work to do.

— Matvei Yankelevich, June 2012

 

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