Category Archives: architecture

The Last Day

Saturday 30th July

Back in the Botanic Garden, and of course it looks lovelier than ever because I am saying goodbye. I find myself making my ritual walk round, trying to imprint the experience of it in my memory to revisit when I am back in England.

There are only two other visitors – a woman of about my age and what I presume is her granddaughter. She takes a photo of the smiling child in front of a fern in the glasshouse. One of the gardeners is sitting at a wrought iron table outside in the full afternoon sun reading the Saturday paper. I, on the other hand, quickly seek out the shade round the back by the rose garden – one of the whitewashed wooden benches, a soothing place to sit, despite the unavoidable whine of the traffic barely twenty metres beyond the cypresses marking the garden’s boundary.

You enter this garden through a small flower shop, potent with the scent of lilies – cut flowers arranged in vases, highly confected bouquets, that the Bulgarians seem to love, plants in pots, for indoors and outdoors, lots of different papers and ribbons for wrapping. It is the custom to take flowers when you’re visiting – and always an odd number; even numbers only associated with death.

A door opens onto what they call the Greek garden – a little vignette of village life, panoramas of the timeless classical landscape and some ancient jars and marble fragments alongside southern plants, including a venerable specimen of a ‘European olive’. Every time I see a plant on this trip with Europaeus in its name I feel a pang of anger and sadness, already nostalgic for the continent I feel part of, at home in.

After ‘Greece’, you enter Central and Southern America, the desert plants – cacti, succulents and palms. There’s also a small Tropical House with a constant fine mist fed by a flowing cascade and trough. Even though it’s still hot, the sight and sound of the water makes you feel cooler. They are generally good with fountains here, large and small, part of their Austro-Hungarian heritage, scattered all over the city, particularly in the parks and gardens.

Outside, pears are ripening above pots of purple basil. Since my first visit to the garden a month ago, various things have gone over. The lilies and day lilies that were so striking then have been replaced by dahlias and Japanese anemones. Though I think today the roses have truly come into their own, looking fuller and more beautiful than a fortnight ago. I’ve enjoyed this way our two countries are connected – through our national flower – despite all the differences between us, a sense of recognition and understanding, possibly thorny at times.

Another of the gardeners (in the uniform of green dungarees and yellow shirt) is giving this part of the garden a good soaking – everything desperately thirsty. During this month there’s been only one day (an evening really) of rain. Otherwise it’s been in the high 20s and low 30s centigrade day and night. I have acclimatised mostly but sleep is sometimes troubled by the heat (and the mosquitoes, who took two weeks to notice I was here but, crikey, when they did, made a proper meal of me…).

In the Rose Garden there’s a fragment of volcanic stone – an unusual flowing shape almost like a horse, legs hidden by the grass, as if it were swimming. I saw a lot more of this on the coast, often studded with lots of tiny fossils. It is used extensively in the hard landscaping at Balchik Palace and the Botanic Garden there. Bulgaria has very diverse geological formations – to match its biodiversity (and cultural diversity) generally. It’s the second most biologically diverse European country (after Spain) – a fact that many of the Bulgarians I speak to are unaware of. They shrug and look confused when I tell them, unfamiliar with feeling anything like pride for their native land.

Last week I was interviewed on the National Radio about my Residency here with the Next Page Foundation’s Literature and Translation House. When the presenter (also passionate about plants, which I have to say is rare) asked how I found the country and Sofia in particular, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer – along the lines of ‘unusual, exotic, contradictory, something Asiatic, something European and something else I can’t put my finger on…’ Afterwards however I was more interested in the simple fact of being asked; seeming to suggest Bulgarians are so unsure about their national identity, they need to hear it from someone else, an ‘outsider’. So many things here seem very aware of their own status as work in progress. Nothing is fixed, certain or reliable. I noticed something similar on my travels to gardens in Italy. Although this can at times be frustrating, there is a truthfulness in it. Everything is work in progress after all, isn’t it? Including us. Hence my difficulty pinning down any neat definition.

Walking through the city to the garden this morning, I was struck by the accidental wabi sabi aesthetic of the place. Wabi sabi is what the Japanese call the quality of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality of life as manifest in the physical world, natural and man-made and the fruitful place where they meet. Unlike in Japan, in Bulgaria they don’t set out to create such an aesthetic, but it happens anyway. Their history – of many different invasions and changes of regime – has been absorbed into their world view and natural philosophy. There’s a strong sense of the ad hoc, ingenuity in the moment, informed by a deep acceptance (or maybe sometimes deep resignation) at the way things are.

Even though there’s a decadence to the appearance of things – architecture, streetscapes, even gardens – because of this outlook, there’s also an intense freshness, a childlike quality of innocence and openness. There is something consoling in this – a relief to let go of the whole goal-oriented, ‘grown-up’ perspective. And it also allows for the fact that if a thing (an idea, a poem, a garden) is never really finished then it can never really come to an end.

It’s only later I discover that Sofia’s motto is ‘Always growing, never ageing.’ I ask my friend Nadya (Radulova – one of the city’s best poets and translators) if some people might think it’s more accurate the other way round – ‘Always ageing, never growing’. But she is adamant neither are true, the city is always just itself, eluding any neat phrase or defining formula. The work in progress continues.

 

 

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In the Reading Room 


Yesterday we went to the lovely Reading Room, a public library in Sofia City Garden that is celebrating its first birthday today.


They made a little video reading there and spelled my name in big wooden Cyrillic letters outside.


As well as a library, it’s also an information point, which helps with the funding.  Brainchild of the writer Alexander Shpatov – he told me they’re trying to figure out a way to create another one to house all the books they’ve acquired.  The fee for joining is the donation of one book.


Alexander has written a book of short stories called Live from Sofia, which I duly bought rather than borrowed and am looking forward to reading – bringing a little bit of Sofia home with me.

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Reading at the Palace of Culture


Tonight at 6 o’clock Sofia time.


With poets, translators and collaborators Nadya Radulova, Kristin Dimitrova, Georgi Gospodinov and Vassil Vidinsky.


In the literary cafe called Peroto ( the Quill) – older poems plus some new work I’ve written while I’m here.  

Full report to follow! 

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City of light and shade

Sofia is a city of dramatic contrasts, history and geography under pressure from all quarters.  It is sometimes confounding, sometimes beguiling.  Now I’m back here after my time away on the coast, it’s strange to see how much it feels like ‘home’.

‘A city called Wisdom should float on clouds…

…Reality is never clear.  It’s never final. You can always change it or see it in a different way.’

From ‘Solo’ by Rana Dasgupta

 

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Roundabout Garden

Sofia Botanical Garden is the only one I’ve visited (so far) that is practically located on a roundabout.  It’s hard to imagine – even when you’re actually there.  But of course the result is it’s very far from being an oasis, the constant heckle of traffic impossible to ignore.

However despite the whirlwind happening all around it, there is much to enjoy in this small but densely planted rectangle.  I’m slowly getting to know its quirks and shady corners. 

Slow is the word…even the gardeners go very slowly to be able to work in the burning heat.  Sometimes it’s cooler inside the glasshouses.  My poetry brain feels a bit like a battered coffee percolator on an old iron stove.

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The Perfect Imperfect Garden

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A little lost, trying to find the place in Pisa I’m staying, I come across the Orto Botanico by accident – a tantalizing glimpse through statuesque iron gates. The back entrance is locked but here, now in the heart of this dusty terracotta, lemon and grey city I can see green spilling everywhere – ginkgo, oak, plane, palm – and people walking around clutching plans, looking back and forth between paper and tree. The information I’d read had said the garden was closed on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. This, like many other things, proves to be wrong.

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Every day they let me in for free and I walk through the shady lodge into a dazzle of sunlight. The first view, the central square – Piazza Arcangeli – is a carefully composed picture of glaring white gravel, an ivy fringed pond, with a semi-circle of oddly tame purple and yellow pansies, and two monumental Chilean wine palms, planted in the 19th century when the grand building that houses the University’s School of Biology was also built. The sweet scent of jasmine permeates the air and acts like a spell. Now you are entering Garden Time – things happen differently here.

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To my left, south, is the oldest part of the garden, established here in 1591, having moved from two earlier sites in the city since it was founded in 1543. The first surviving design dates from 1723 and this is more or less as it stands today, with just a few changes. A dense mood of continuity and tradition hangs over everything – comforting and stultifying.

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In the Myrtle Garden medicinal plants are arranged in ceramic pots on stone staging like guests at the theatre – guests who’ve forgotten to wear their best clothes. The rosemary and sage need no special attention: they would grow wild given half the chance. Many of the others are thirsty, sulking, distracted by weeds. I enjoy the big old myrtle though, remembering my midwife back in the early ’80s when I gave birth to my sons at home – brisk, no-nonsense, with a heart of gold. How does a girl born in the chilly North Tyne valley on the cusp of the twentieth century end up being called Myrtle? I invent an Italian honeymoon for her parents – wish them an unlocked garden, the fragrance of jasmine, the excitement of sparrows and the sinuous darting of lizards.

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In the Cedar Garden the original cedar is missing – as is the heart of the oldest magnolia in Tuscany, braced by three iron props, thick glossy leaves burgeoning anyway – venerable, perfectly imperfect. Who says a heart needs to be visible to stay strong?

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I see my first ever flower on a tulip tree, eat my first loquat, plucked from a just-in-reach branch – sharp and juicy – and find a maroon blossom also new to me. The petals look and feel as if they are made of flocked card, curled up in the heat of the sun. The label tells me it is Calycanthus floridus, a native of North America.

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The far end of this part of the garden is marked by the extraordinary ‘grotesque’ façade of what is now the Botanical Museum. The site of the old entrance on Via Santa Maria, it was decorated to celebrate the dynastic marriage between a Medici and a Lorraine in 1752. Next to it, the traditional ochre-coloured stucco is fading and peeling. Dark green shutters keep out the powerful sun. Climbing pink roses spike the eye. All these colours shouldn’t go together, but they do – Italian style so often brash, extravagant, excessive.

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To the north of the School of Biology lies the Orto Nuovo and the Arboretum – a less formal planting of many varieties of trees and a massive stand of bamboo in a landscape more like a park than a botanical garden. There is a small pool with waterlilies, fish and turtles. Students sit around it to work, eat, flirt – often all three at once: pleasure such a necessary thread in the texture of any Italian day or night. There’s a low hill from which you can see the top of the Leaning Tower up on the Field of Miracles and the dome of the Cathedral, pleated like a giant seedhead against the backdrop of the sky.

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Time passes. What is a week might be a month. I am bitten on the ankles by mosquitoes. I take photographs of beetles, striped red and black like the coats of arms of Italian aristocrats. I drink cool pear juice from the vending machine. Roberta shows me the wooden doors from the old entrance – carved panels of Aloe, Belladonna, Verbascum and Crown Imperial (the garden’s emblem). Tree surgeons work very slowly, lopping off the topmost branches of the oldest highest trees, stacking great mounds of wood beneath them. I make friends with the garden cat, ginger and white and luxuriant. I feel honoured, special, until the next day I see him languishing, faithless, alongside a young student under the red chestnut tree.

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A Swedish visitor asks me if I know why the garden is so neglected, why the students aren’t set to weeding. Two days later I see a small group of girls hoeing and hooking up weeds in a corner of the Myrtle Garden. I find the strangest, largest wisteria ever – root and stem rearing like a dragon to climb the nearby trees. I discover the name Hortense comes from the Italian for hydrangea. The new glasshouses are three years behind schedule and several species of plants have died waiting. I sit beneath a eucalyptus, calmed by its familiar reassuring smell, the little moons of its fallen leaves. My skin turns pink and freckled. I think about history, my own and the garden’s. I press leaves and flowers between the pages of my notebook.

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Before coming home I spend 24 hours in Florence for an Italian poet friend’s book launch. Too short a time for so bountiful a city. Long enough to climb the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo and see the Garden of the Roses and the Iris Garden, home of the Florentine ‘lily’ (giglio). From here, there is a sweeping view of the Arno, the same river that runs through Pisa, and the whole of the city, buildings packed so close together, not much changed since the time of the Medicis and the Renaissance.

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I sit with a lump in my throat beside the Duomo – Our Lady of the Flowers – a church built from so many different marbles, perfectly arranged, like some sublime garden, with such care and skill and devotion. Behind me a French tourist spills his ice-cream and his wife mops him up with a tissue from her bag soaked in perfume. ‘Now I smell like a woman!’ he says laughing. I get up to leave, taking the scent of jasmine and violets with me.

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Muse and Meadow

IMG_7899 Even if not here, Spring is always happening somewhere.  This weekend I tracked it down in London, galloping ahead of us like a runaway horse. At the Poetry Society’s gathering for the Ted Hughes Award and the National Poetry Competition, I was delighted to receive First Prize for my poem Bernard and Cerinthe, which began life among the gorgeous blooms in my friend Susie’s garden. Garden of verses … Honeywort or Cerinthe major Purpurascens – one of the romantic leads in

Cerinthe is a stunner, also known as honeywort or wax flower.  I intend to try and grow some in my garden this summer.  If this fog lifts and the soil warms up.

IMG_7893 It also gave me an excuse to visit the lovely Garden Museum and see their exhibition on Fashion and Gardens. Lots of fascinating connections – fabrics, prints and paintings, as well as several mannequins dressed to kill in garden-inspired outfits.   The highlight, almost literally, was Rebecca Louise Law’s installation, The Flower Garden Display’d, named after the 1734 book, a month by month directory of flowers, by Robert Furber, on loan from the British Library.

IMG_7922Standing beneath it, the world was turned upside down – ceiling became meadow and, as the flowers were drying and dying, marriage bed became winding sheet.   It seemed more Elizabethan than eighteenth century somehow – redolent of strewing herbs and embroidered bodices, Shakespeare sonnets.  In the vaulted ceiling of the converted church, catching the light from the arched and stained glass windows, it was sublime – sacred and secular. To walk beneath it was to cross the threshold into whatever April might bring.

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Windows & Walls

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Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.

Simone Weil

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I know that the writer does call up the general and maybe the essential through the particular, but this general and essential is still deeply embedded in mystery.  it is not answerable to any of our formulas.

Flannery O’Connor

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More Light

IMG_6761Open the second shutter so that more light may come in.

Goethe’s last words

Every year the Institute of Advanced Study here in Durham adopts a theme to provide a focus for the interdisciplinary conversation and this year’s is Light so the Lumière Festival was a wonderful reflection of the various subjects we have been discussing in the past few months, connecting the history, science, philosophy, paleobiology and politics of light.  My contribution is an angle on the poetry of light, via my current work on plants, gardens and ecology.  I have a sense that making a poem is, like the germination of a seed, an act that takes place in the dark, leaves and language reaching for the space to open into that light makes possible.

IMG_6780 Boswell: Then, sir, what is poetry?

Johnson: Why, sir, it is much easier to say what it is not.  We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is.

From Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson

IMG_6808When a friend sent me a link to an online word frequency counter, I discovered that light was the fourth most frequent noun in my new collection-in-progress (after garden, home and tree).  Other frequent nouns, in descending order, are flower, flowers, earth, love, leaves, heart, dark and world.

IMG_6896Light plays itself out in various layers of my recent investigations.  The simple fact of it is reflected in the difference between the Northern and Southern hemispheres and suggested my itinerary – from North East England to Sydney, visiting Singapore en route.  I wanted to experience summer in winter, an up-ending associated in my mind with the disorientation of so-called certainties in relation to place, climate and culture.  Always drawn to examining the nature of polarities – north/south, city/country, male/female, home/away, self/other, static/dynamic – I was keen to explore the possibility of writing from that queasy spot experienced as insecurity, tension, paradox, groundlessness.  It’s definitely been a case of Be careful what you wish for as I have indeed found myself occupying this open zone and – surprise, surprise– it is not entirely comfortable.  Maybe that is the concentrated point of risk and inquiry (a certain degree of darkness) that poetry arises from.  I’ve appreciated the support of this small tribe I’ve become part of in Durham while I continue my navigations.

IMG_6798We’ve never, no, not for a single day,

pure space before us, such as that which flowers

endlessly open into.

From Rilke’s 8th Duino Elegy

IMG_6819Light occurs implicitly in these new poems, acknowledging the biological process of photosynthesis, without which we would literally have no air to breathe.  No plants, no life on earth: something most people take utterly for granted, instead of remembering to celebrate the joy of interdependence and exchange.  There is great intimacy and compassion in this deep sense of ecology, which has the potential to change the way people choose to live.

Joy and wonder are inevitable consequences of an awareness and appreciation of the natural world.  Sometimes I think I am just ‘singing the flowers’, like an Ethiopian herdsman sings the praises of his cattle, one by one, his greatest wealth.  This year I have been fortunate enough to have seen so many wonders, such delightful and astonishing plants and trees, how can I not bring back traveller’s tales, share the fruits of my explorations?

IMG_6811On this journey of discovery, light has given me access to the unknown, otherness.  Through the light of awareness, I have begun to penetrate the historical (and contemporary) darknesses of exploitation, prejudice, exoticisation, colonialism and capitalism.  Close observation, reflection and articulation shed light on these areas that thrive in shade and silence.  Light contains within it its opposite – and so my work also inevitably touches upon grief and melancholy; within the cycle of life, there is death, loss.

Human beings have always harnessed the healing, regenerative properties of light.  In relation to plants, this medicine is both literal and metaphorical.  It also pertains to the transitional – the time of necessary change in which we find ourselves where we are being encouraged to consume more and more of less and less to redress the balance of decades of over-consumption.  The gesture is one of letting go, shedding – particularly relevant perhaps for those of us getting older and needing to move more in tune with the time, the season of our lives, as well as the time of the increasingly burdened planet.

IMG_6944Imagine a walled garden, the hortus conclusus, as a vessel of light.  It is the body of the Virgin Mary, a mythic Eden or Paradise (honouring birth and death), the blessings of light held safe within its boundaries.  I have opened a door in this garden, letting the light spill out, making a track to follow and see by, illuminating the ground to be covered and creating a sense of path or journey.  I was amused to learn that the ‘random meander’ strategy I instinctively evolved (of having no fixed goal or destination and responding to whatever I encountered along the way) is an accepted ‘scientific’ research method.

IMG_6913Light has been part of my methods in other ways relating more directly to poetic technique.  I see it in my consideration of the white space around the individual poems, allowing the form to mirror the diversity of plant physiology I find so fascinating.  Achieving this degree of ‘engineering’ requires clarity of mind, incisiveness and discriminating awareness (what to cut? where? how to create an authentic texture of light and presence, absence and shadow?).  A poem also needs a lightness of touch in the voice and address to persuade the reader it is worth reading or listening to at all.  I am keen that these new poems with their ecological concerns should never be worthy, in danger of putting a reader off rather than making a connection with (and for) her.  Doesn’t every poet want to be able to direct their own light, illuminating their ‘subject’ for a reader, and so leave her changed by it?

IMG_6878I am pursuing a line of investigation around the Nine Muses as sources of inspiration – Art, Science and Culture, and their mother, Memory (and ‘stepmothers’, Earth and Harmony).  Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed that the first muse was Health and there seems no reason to contradict him.

IMG_6890These final thoughts have led me to start thinking of my collection-in-progress as something growing, a healthy, vibrant, though unfinished, garden, with the working title Heliconia.  This is a reference to one of my favourite plants I first ‘met’ at Moorbank and followed across the globe, beyond the limits of glass, to Singapore and then Sydney (you can see an example of one variety in the banner at the top of this blog), as well as pointing to that mountain in Boeotia, traditionally home of the Muses, surely a source of all manner of light.

What is to give light must endure burning.

Viktor Frankl

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The Elephant in the Room

IMG_6731The life of one day is enough to rejoice. Even though you live for just one day, if you can be awakened, that one day is vastly superior to one endless life of sleep. . . . If this day in the lifetime of a hundred years is lost, will you ever touch it with your hands again?

Zen Master Dogen

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IMG_6708I see your argument about horses, the World Spirit, and about tomfoolery and disrespect, as well as why and how all these elements are so connected to each other.

Pussy Riot did turn out be a part of this force, the purpose of which is criticism, creativity and co-creation, experimentation and constantly provocative events. Borrowing Nietzsche’s definition, we are the children of Dionysus, sailing in a barrel and not recognising any authority.

We are a part of this force that has no final answers or absolute truths, for our mission is to question. There are architects of apollonian statics and there are (punk) singers of dynamics and transformation. One is not better than the other. But it is only together that we can ensure the world functions in the way Heraclitus defined it: “This world has been and will eternally be living on the rhythm of fire, inflaming according to the measure, and dying away according to the measure. This is the functioning of the eternal world breath.”

We are the rebels asking for the storm, and believing that truth is only to be found in an endless search. If the “World Spirit” touches you, do not expect that it will be painless.

 Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot writing to philosopher Slavoj Žižek

IMG_6744 2When there is understanding and a set of values that encourage sharing, then the limitations, the needs, and the lacks of any given life can be acknowledged and effort can be put into using material supports with compassion. This is also true in cases of deprivation; surely a major contributor to this is the greed and exploitation of others, which has its source in identification with material prosperity. If we could all accept the experience of limitation on our resources and comforts, if affluent people’s standard of living were not so high, there would be fewer people who felt, and actually were, “poor.” Maybe with more sharing, there would be less severe physical deprivation. Instead of creating golf courses in the desert, or seeing air-conditioning, two cars, and countless television channels as necessities of life, we could try to accept limitations to our material circumstances and acknowledge that there is suffering.

This acknowledgment doesn’t require that everyone should feel wretched; rather, it’s a matter of learning to know and accept that this earthly realm is one of limitation. When we wake up to how human life on this planet actually is, and stop running away or building walls in our heart, then we develop a wiser motivation for our life. And we keep waking up as the natural dukkha [suffering] touches us. This means that we sharpen our attention to catch our instinctive reactions of blaming ourselves, blaming our parents, or blaming society; we meditate and access our suffering at its root; and consequently we learn to open and be still in our heart. And even on a small scale in daily life situations, such as when we feel bored or ill at ease, instead of trying to avoid these feelings by staying busy or buying another fancy gadget, we learn to look more clearly at our impulses, attitudes, and defenses. In this way dukkha guides and deepens our motivation to the point where we’ll say, “Enough running, enough walls, I’ll grow through handling my blocks and lost places.”



Ajahn Sucitto

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