Penelope’s Postscript

Uncounted days, wrung dry of tears—
Lost wanderers do not return:
So much for the departed years.

Heap up my mangled hopes and fears,
Leave Ithaka to mock and spurn
Uncounted days. Wrung dry of tears

I shut from my importuned ears
The suitors’ pleas. How could I yearn
So much for the departed? Years

Spent weaving shrouds amidst their jeers
(Feigned piety would serve my turn)
Uncounted days wrung dry. Of tears

I shed enough. My vision clears:
No longer am I keen to learn
So much for the departed years.

Out of the mist a man appears,
A revenant whose angers burn
Uncounted. Days, wrung dry of tears!
So much for the departed years.

From Formal Complaints (Somers Rocks Press, 1997)


Vignettes From Troy

I. Helen
Paris kissed her, and she colored—
Soon forgot her Spartan dullard.
It’s easy to be over-flighty
When you’re ruled by Aphrodite.

II. Agamemnon
First he sacrificed his daughter
To begin the Trojan slaughter,
Then stood on the royal dais
Threatening to take Briseis.

III. Achilles
Brooding without stint or measure
He spurned all Achaean treasure—
Chose instead aloof seclusion,
Careless of the fight’s conclusion.

IV. Hector
Spear and shield upon his shoulder
Made Greek courage somewhat colder.
Great defender of the city—
Pitiless, yet worth some pity.

V. Hecuba
Three vindictive sisters spinning:
War was merely the beginning.
Priam dead and Troy in rubble
Only presaged further trouble.

From Masquerade (Pivot Press, 2005)



Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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23 Responses

  1. James Sale

    Penelope’s Postscript is, as a villanelle, technically brilliant. Just a consideration of the variant, and ceaselessly shifting, punctuation in the one line – Uncounted days, wrung dry of tears – is an education in meanings. Superb writing – direct, sparse and consummate.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      You English always say everything so well, in contrast to my slogging uphill; but, yes, it is precisely the refrain functioning grammatically in more than one way which lifts the entire poem to the level of the lyrical. The beauty resides in these details of mastery.

      • James Sale

        Yes, and their haunting repetition, which repeats the ostensible meaning whilst simultaneously expanding it into new areas. As so often with great work, it’s in small details that there’s all the difference – not huge headline, look at me, slogans.

  2. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    I thank Professor Salemi for releasing these poems. These more than sufficiently vindicate my assertion in the comments of a previous post that Joseph S. Salemi is America’s official poet—yes, we have one.

    And I insist that poetry is not an experiment. Only Dylan Thomas’s suicidally depressing (read: 20th-century Welsh) “Do not go gently into that dark night” might be said to match Salemi in the villanelle. This is because Salemi goes in prepared.

    With the appearance of Penelope’s Postscript, we have a far better example of the villanelle for our textbooks. Where Dylan gives us a trite melodrama, Salemi paints a psychologically penetrating portrait worthy of Homer’s archetype and verging on the lyrical if not attaining it. Where Dylan gushes a puny emotional tirade, Salemi sculpts with chisel, rasp, and point.

    One has the sense that this poem could easily be taught as the historical dividing line between the obsolescent civil servant “poetry” of empty government academia and the actual Ars Poetica Nova. And so “Penelope’s Postscript” and the collection in which it appears would place the birth of the Nouvelle Poésie in the year 1997.

    I have been privileged to be able to read Homer in the Greek and, in the days of my youth, was able to recite vast passages of the Iliad from memory. I can therefore assure our readers that the five quatrains constituting the “Vignettes from Troy”—literally perfect in their form—could not summarize more profoundly the figures they describe. They say almost everything about the characters considered individually, almost everything about Homer in general taken together. There is as much scholarship—or more—behind the creation of these cold marble inscriptions (one would place them at the base of a statue of each figure) as there is in the most comprehensive Ph.D. dissertation on Homer’s characters.

    Salemi remains unchallenged. The erudition, the refinement, the philological discipline, the absolutely uncompromising fidelity to the highest standards of our art, these are qualities the world has lost. This is the bar Salemi has set for the Ars Poetica Nova.

    Poets, take up this standard and advance!

  3. Sultana Raza

    These succinct capsules capture the essentials of these archetypal characters so well. I agree that they could be placed at the base of a statue of each figure.

      • Sultana Raza

        Thanks, Mr Mackenzie. And I agree with your analysis of ‘Penelope’s Postscript.’ The title itself is quite evocative, and can be interpreted in a number of ways. For example, is Penelope herself a post-script in the Odyssey? Or is her discourse just a post-script, now that her husband seems to have returned? Or is this villanelle a post-script to her long lament over the years? Intriguing possibilities.
        Speaking of Odysseus, I’ve touched upon him from Calypso’s point of view, in ‘Calypso Endures,’ which can be read by opening this link, and scrolling down:
        No doubt the scansion could use with a fine-toothed comb.

  4. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Mr. Sale is right that we should look into the details of a masterpiece to appreciate its genius. Indeed, “Penelope’s Postcript” is an invitation, among other things, to return to Homer, even if one has lost his Greek.

    The humblest of students would recall Book Nineteen of the Odyssey which Mr. Salemi’s poem most powerfully evokes.

    The villanelle is in persona, voicing the words Penelope herself, as reported by Homer, to her own husband disguised as a vagabond, as she describes her “Years
    Spent weaving shrouds amidst their jeers” (those of the suitors). But there the simplicity ends.

    For, Salemi skillfully navigates between Penelope’s external discourse directed toward an interlocutor in a very public situation, and the deeply private interior language of her heart, “wrung dry of tears.” The genius of this phrase which rises to the level of a Homeric epithet: not a simple description, but a substantive naming standing in for the thing itself. But there is another genius to Salemi’s device, as Penelope herself must navigate between public and private, interior and exterior, in exactly the same way.

    I think the operative utterance is at 19.136?

    ἀλλ᾽ Ὀδυσῆ ποθέουσα φίλον κατατήκομαι ἦτορ.

    “But longing for Odysseus, I pine away my heart,” might be a literal translation accounting for what must be an accusative of specification for the
    ἦτορ, “heart.”

    But I think Mr. Salemi did better to account for the word where all the meaning is, the κατατήκομαι > κατατήκω, literally to “melt,” to “melt away.” (A middle perfect in Homer’s text.)

    Salemi therefore draws out of the Greek verb a heart not simply melting away, but “wrung dry of tears,” giving us the full force of Homer’s verse in a way that no mere translator has ever done before or since.

    This is classic lyric poetry in the grand manner.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Once again, Mr. MacKenzie shows his uncanny knack for getting to the core of a poem. I was planning to use that very line from Book 19 of the Odyssey as an epigraph to my villanelle, but decided against it at the last minute.

      Thank you all for your kind words. I am deeply honored.

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        Oh no, Professor Salemi, nothing at all like a knack or special insight.

        The response of memory, the visceral envisioning the archetype, the renovated imaging of the model from which the verses draw their life—your poem does all of that…

        …if we accept the invitation.

  5. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    My question is for Sultana Raza: Are you from the Republic of Inida? If so, I must tell you that we were fascinated by the speech of your amazing Prime Minister, Narendra Damodardas Modi, at the St. Petersburg International Economic forum. We learned so very much about India.

    Just so everyone knows, Madame Raza’s website is a festival of English couplets arising from a unique perspective we might do well to explore:

  6. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    My question is for Sultana Raza: Are you from the Republic of India? If so, I must tell you that we were fascinated by the speech of your amazing Prime Minister, Narendra Damodardas Modi, at the St. Petersburg International Economic forum. We learned so very much about India.

    Just so everyone knows, Madame Raza’s website is a festival of English couplets arising from a unique perspective we might do well to explore:

    • Sultana Raza

      Indeed, I am from India, but am afraid I don’t follow any politicians. I can only laud the PM’s anonymous speech-writers for his discourse, (though I tend to take what most politicians say with fistfuls of salt). Indian politics is as complex as the country itself. Of course, it must be difficult for most people outside of India to realise that the current PM’s party is somewhat extreme in its views on certain points.

      Thank you for your kind words about my poems. When I was writing them, I was more focused on the story, (which was about Calypso’s imagined recovery after Odysseus absconded) rather than the form itself. Hence the couplets. In any case, I’m of the view that the couplet is one of the basic, simplest, and purest forms of formal poetry. Therefore, I tend to use them rather more than most.

      To get back to the main topic of this thread, Prof. Salemi has shown us how to use formal structures with precise words in order to render a multi-layered vision of a myth.

  7. Bard Eucewelis

    Although the villanelle’s origin is in the 16th century French Renaissance, particularly during the reigns of Francis I and Henry II, the era of Rabelais, Calvin, Ronsard and Montaigne, it had not arrived at a single form. Poets, like du Bellay and Desportes, wrote villanelles of over thirty lines long. It was the example of classical scholar Jean Passerat in his “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” that caught the fancy of English poets and critics, his straightforward syntax, his brief declarative sentences, his avoidance of enjambment, and his absence of allusion, more reminiscent of Marot than the Pléiade. Nor did he, and other French writers of the time, utilize an iambic pentameter metric.

    It was a lighter, freer form in its early French inception. Later, when it was adopted into English literature, it became more metrical, and heavier, not so much, I think, as in Wilde’s Hellenistic, tetrameter “Theocritus: A Villanelle,” nor E. A. Robinson’s “The House on the Hill,” but more like the iambic pentameters of Dylan Thomas’ remarkable poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”

    The villanelle is a poem of repetition, therefore, leaning easily to a musical bent; but, for all of the musical magic in Thomas’ villanelle, for me it has an entirely different thrust, one that is more solemn and sober, unlike the effect he achieves in his lyric “Fern Hill,” which seems closer in quality to the early French examples. For me, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” seems neither trivial nor histrionic, but rather heavy, possibly even “depressing,” as Mr. Mackenzie has pointed out.

    What the binge-drinking Thomas achieves in his striking villanelle, as in the more formidable, tubercular-ridden odes of the youthful Keats, is something unique in English literature, that bursts immediately in its first impressive line, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Here Thomas handles alliteration and assonance impeccably, in such a simple straightforward way I am amazed at the powers of our mother tongue: the n’s, the admixture of the dentals, and the echoic “do/into/good.” Its paradoxical nature of simplicity and complexity reveals the flexibility and depth of our language even as Thomas begins his brief discursus on striving for life, despite the “Welsh” melancholia Mr. MacKenzie invokes.

    Though many writers have written villanelles in the English language, like Mr. Salemi, Ms. Bishop, and even the tongue-in-cheek, New-Millennial urbanelle “On China’s Air Pollution,” printed in the SCP in February 2013, it is the suicidal poet Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” that attacks viscerally with its emotional and profoundly simple poesy. I do not like the poetry of Plath at all; it is less healthy than the poetry of, say, either Ms. Foreman or Ms. Cook, but time and again I am amazed at what she accomplished in her astringent free verse forms.

    There is so much more beyond that first line in Thomas’ poem that awaits the critical eye. But as a final comment, I would point out, that Thomas’ villanelle compared against Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Shepherd’s Brow” shows many interesting “connexions.”

  8. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Mr. Eucewelis has offered a rich article for discussion. Thank you, Sir, for the brief survey of the French villanelle which seems to me quite just.

    I would like to discuss the possibility that Dylan’s idea of death in the “Go not gentle” fails utterly to rescue the poem, for all its lovely alliterations, and that this poem is a full-blown work not simply of literary modernism, but also and primarily of atheist-secularist dogma. In doing so, I do not think that one can prescind from the question of Dylan’s suicide by alcohol affirming the total emptiness of his vision—which is not quite the same thing as his father’s physical loss of sight in 1951.

    The discussion begins with fundamental questions: Does the value of a poem lie in the sum of its alliterations? Is poetry a mere exercise in prosody? Is the experience of poetry an emotional bypassing of the intellect? Does the reading of poetry amount to mere “scansion,” however erudite? Does poetry have no ordination to truth?

    Many readers fall victim to Dylan’s conflating of emptiness with darkness. The one is a zero, the other potentially full (as in the dark night of the soul of St. John of the Cross—any given verse of whom is worth more than all our English poetry since the Revolution). But this is not the dark night of the soul of a Carmelite mystic of the Siglo d’ Oro.

    For, Dylan no more possesses a soul in the bleak “Fern Hill” than he does in the villanelle. The “rage” against death, which replaces death, is neither spiritual, nor mystical, nor intellectual. It is biological, animal, a brute reflex. There is not one thing in Dylan’s poem to raise it above the level of a dying worm. Dylan has given to modernism the atheist’s how-to on dying.

    Within the narrow confines of Dylan’s secularist treatise, there is no appeal to the Father, no act of contrition, no desire for the soul’s purification, no illumination of the intellect, no resignation to God’s providence, no sense of liberation from the chains of the body, and I could go on and on with what is not there. Because the reality of Dylan’s villanelle is its essential emptiness. One might shed a tear reading it. Hallmark cards have elicited tears.

    I certainly believe that Mr. Eucewelis is insightful to connect Dylan to Hopkins whom the modernists have always claimed as one of their forerunners. Everyone should read “The Shepherd’s Brow” fully to understand my meaning. After all, we are talking about a “poem” whose final word “hussy” rhymes with “fussy,” and a completely broken syntax.

    But Fr. Hopkins was at best a “liberal Catholic,” if he was a Christian at all. His stated iconoclastic goal was to remake all of English poetry through myriad innovations (“sprung rhythm,” exploded alliteration, metaphor-hiding, etc.), in the same way his descendants in the sect of Vatican II would remake all of Catholicism through their own, death-dealing weapons.

    During the years of the modernist Terror, we were all supposed to believe that Dylan was the “good guy,” the “lyrical” god of modernism’s man-made pantheon. The reality is that Dylan is as dangerous and vile as Hopkins before him…

    …except that Dylan’s poisonous cake is better decorated.

  9. Bard Eucewelis

    Though I disagree, and disagree deeply, with much of what Mr. MacKenzie has written here, and elsewhere, I would still make the claim that his prose is exceptional; also, too, that his poetry occasionally reaches excellence. Nevertheless, here are some disagreements.

    1. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” is the best villanelle I have ever read, though I would never shed a tear over it. It is nowhere near “King Lear.”

    2. I do think there are things in Dylan Thomas’ poem “that raise it above the level of a dying worm.”

    3. I do not think any given verse of San Juan de la Cruz “is worth more than all our English poetry since the Revolution.”

    4. I think there are a great number of English-speaking poets whose poetic works have a greater depth and richness than those of San Juan de la Cruz, including Gerard Manley Hopkins.

    5. I agree that the mystics of El Siglo de Oro, like Santa Teresa de Jesús, Fray Luis de León, and San Juan de la Cruz, have a purity of language not found anywhere in English literature.

    6. There are several Spanish poets of El Siglo de Oro whose work I find superior to that of San Juan de la Cruz.

    7. Although I do not subscribe to atheism, a religiously and philosophically bankrupt position, that does not mean atheists cannot write good poetry. Mr Mantyk, for example, in his top ten poems of the English language, chose not only most of his poems from after the “Revolution,” but he also included atheist Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” a sonnet I admire [though would place lower].

    8. “Fussy” in “The Shepherd’s Brow” indicates man’s flaws versus Christ’s perfection, not, I think, inappropriate in Hopkins’ sonnet.

    9. I agree that Dylan Thomas was not a “good guy” and hardly a “lyrical god.”

    10. I do not think Dylan Thomas’ “poisonous cake is better decorated” than the “dangerous and vile” Hopkins.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      This has been an interesting detour. It teaches a valuable lesson.

      Just as Ronsard and the Pléiade had definitively rebuked the antiquated experimentalism of the Grands Rhétoriqueurs, those myopic, minutiae generating theorists of rhyme and meter who were better at writing treatises than poetry, and whose names are lost in the obscurity they all too well deserved, so the Ars Poetica Nova dismisses the empty, albeit pretty, formalism of Dylan, the perverted experimentalism of Hopkins, and the modernist chaos filling the gap between them.

      In conclusion, the discussion situates Salemi and his villanelle in an even more important context. In other words, Salemi is not transitional like Marot, not a withered hanger-on like this latter’s father, Jean Marot, not a gothic like Octavien de Saint-Gelais.

      Salemi is fully and completely in the world of the Ars Poetica Nova. Indeed, his villanelle perfectly exposes Dylan’s alcoholic tirade for the empty formalist thing it is, just exactly as Villon;s oeuvre must have revealed to 15th-century readers the limitations of the conventional poésie courtoise of his day.

      But the Ars Poetica Nova is precisely, that: new. For some of us, undoing modernist indoctrination will be as difficult as removing an opiated lollipop from the mouth of a child, as we desperately cling to the false security of a system, rusted and broken, that government academia made into our one religion. Yes, Dylan was an idol in that system.

      Salemi has overturned the idols.

      • James Sale

        I am not as learned in this matter as the Bard and Joseph Campbell, and the latter is certainly right in saying ‘this has been an interesting detour’. Indeed, it touches on the heart of what we mean by poetry, and also its alignment or otherwise with belief systems. Like Mr Campbell I do take beliefs very seriously; they are core. And like Mr Campbell I happen to think that weak or false beliefs on most occasions do lead to weak and false poetry; but you will notice my caveat ‘on most’, for I also think that this incredible world, and its deep mysteries, always surprises us, and we must be open to these surprises. For what we can think can never compass reality; sometimes the atheist expresses the truth that the religious reject. And this is a very religious view, since it was the religious leaders themselves, and their religious people, who rejected the Christ.

        So, yes, I happen to agree that Dylan Thomas is a relatively minor poet precisely because while he dazzled with his language, he never really said anything substantive. But that said, I do think also that ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ is – adapting what Mr Bard said – the greatest villanelle in the English language. And yet Mr Campbell is right in saying it actually represents the best shot atheism has at saying anything in the face of death, which is nothing. There’s the rub: just as we can feel – in Dante and in Milton – the sorrow of hell, a kind of pathos which kindles our own souls (In Dante of course Virgil drums it out of the Pilgrim by the end of the Inferno), so it is that the atheist is human too, is also – while still alive – in the image of God. And this is the God who give gifts to all; and Dylan Thomas, although he defaced his gifts as he did his life, had that lyrical quality which perfectly resonates in this form. So as long as the language exists, some half-a-dozen poems by Thomas will continue to appear in anthologies, and on exam syllabuses, because what he says here speaks to many, and particularly the young. I myself was brought up in a deeply atheist family background, and so remember how intoxicating Thomas appeared to me when I was 19.

        But on the subject of GM Hopkins – I am surprised to learn what Mr Campbell thinks, as I personally hold Hopkins in high regard as a poet; in fact I see Hopkins as a major poet, and see Joseph Campbell’s poetry as on a par with it! I am not a Catholic but know that Hopkins was approved of theologically by no less figure than that great mind, Cardinal Newman. But if he doesn’t pass muster on that front, then I defer to Catholics who know more. I also concede that some of his experimentation and theories of inscape, instress and all that were way off the mark. My essay on Poetry and the Muses Part 3 (appearing this July) should make clear why, though it doesn’t reference Hopkins. But that said, there is a small body of work that is – to use his own expression – ‘immortal diamond’. The book of Job comes alive again in the ‘Terrible Sonnets’ and I have to say that “Thou Art Indeed Just Lord, if I contend / With Thee’ is possibly my all-time favourite sonnet, even ahead of the Elizabethans and Shakespeare! There is in them – as there is in Joseph Campbell’s greatest sonnets – a directness of speech, an overwhelming intensity of emotion, and a technical facility whereby all is realised and resolved, and the reader is left in wonder.

        So, three cheers, then, for Gerard Manley Hopkins!

  10. Lew Icarus Bede

    The Detour Continues

    1. Almost all of the writing here at SCP must be a “detour,” for two reasons: a) we cannot only write about great poets, because that would preclude all of us to a certain degree, and b) most of the poets we write on, even the relatively famous ones, like Thomas and Hopkins, Yeats and Keats, and many of our own favourites, are in some sense as well, lacking in various excellencies. But that doesn’t mean we won’t, shouldn’t, or can’t write about them.

    2. I think the Ars Poetica Nova is but one aspect of New Millennial poetry, which must include poetry written not only in English, but also in Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, French, Arabic, Italian, Japanese, German, Russian…

    3. I believe the reason the poet Bard Eucewelis, a fellow Celtic admirer, fond of the Good and the Welsh (notice both can be in the same phrase), brought up Marot in his discussion, was because Passerat, following the ideals of Marot, thereby puts into question the very quality of the villanelle and its creation. I believe he was pointing out that Victorian poets and critics zoomed in on the Jean Passerat villanelle structure, in search of a novel form, much in the manner of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ accurately-described “experimentation.” As an aside, I do like the folk quality of the villanelle.

    4. Though here I am treading on dangerous ground, I still would suggest that Dylan Thomas and the villanelle came together at just the right time in English-speaking poetic history, on the cusp between Modernism and Postmodernism, right after World War II—”and that has made all the difference.”

    5. Every poem is flawed, including Vergil’s “Aeneid.” But what one seeks are its best qualities—ever.

    6. In reference to “removing an opiated lollipop from the mouth of a child,” Modernism is over, as is Postmodernism. That doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t hangers-on to those, or other movements, be they Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, Romantic, Realist, or Modernist. Nor should one suggest that we ignore writers of any fertile period, Classical, Hellenistic, Augustan, etc.

    7. I agree with Mr. Sale in saying that “Dylan Thomas is a relatively minor poet,” but that does not preclude his writing the best villanelle in the English language; and I think age has nothing to do with the good qualities of “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”

    8. Hopkins joined his fellow English writers in experimenting with Italian Giacomo da Lentini’s invention, the sonnet [which Dante wrote and Petrarca established as an important form], like Wyatt, Howard, Spenser, Milton, Shelley, and others. His curtal sonnet reminds me of Keats experimental structures in his Odes. Experimentation is not bad per se. I, too, have indulged in what I call an American sonnet, a Staffordian sonnet, and even the tennos itself is an experiment on the sonnet. But also think of French, Spanish, and Russian sonnets, Chinese attempts, etc.

    9. “Pied Beauty” is an example of Hopkins’ curtal sonnet, where he speaks of the glory of God and the beauty of the world. Yes, it is lacking, but that’s not the important thing about it.

    Glory be to God for dappled things—
    For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
    Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
    Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow and plough;
    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

    All things counter, original, spare, strange;
    Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
    Praise him.

    10. Three cheers for Mr. MacKenzie, Mr. Salemi, and Mr. Sale.

    • James Sale

      Ha ha ha!! Thanks Bede. My only observation now on this marvellous detour is to point out that I agree with you: Thomas is a minor poet, but as I said, his villanelle is probably the best in the English language! One needs to give credit where credit is due; it is a wonderful composition. Thanks for your illuminating comments and if you ever run into Bede, please give him my regards too.

      • James Sale

        Thank you Mr Mackenzie. And thank you for referring me to the Joseph Salemi collection, which I did not know, though I have recently bought a copy of his Steel Masks and read it with immense pleasure and admiration. What do I think of the Ossuary at Verdun? Well, the whole collection needs a really good read and review, which I am not doing here, and I note the succeeding poem attacks the Quakers, of which I am one: great stuff! Love it! What wonderful truculence – a word I keep using about his vigorous and masculine style of writing. As for the Ossuary? Well, what a villanelle! Yes, since we’ve been talking about Thomas’s being the best there is, then here is a competitor in the frame.

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