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Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver’s poetry presents an ecological worldview that calls into question the hierarchies inherited from a Judaeo-Christian tradition. Many of these hierarchies have been critiqued since Darwin and twentieth century science but Oliver’s clearly outlines not just the hierarchies of race, gender and culture but distinction is always drawn between the primacy of humankind and all animal and plant life. Her poetry reveals the interconnectedness of all lifeforms, dismantling the perceived roles of all creatures that have been in place in the Western world since the Bible.

Oliver’s poetry is not about the estrangement and ennui of postmodernity though it is implied. Her poetry is a celebration of life, of the very miracle of life, and resonates with the awe of existence. She wishes her readers to experience this awe; to see, for the first time perhaps, the amazing miracle that we are alive and connected in a vast ecosystem, where we are just one of the creatures. She undermines the concept of the individual; we are interdependent and communal, part of the intricate web of being. This belief concurs with twentieth cenury physics and the idea that we, like all things, are energy. Callicott in ‘The Metaphysical Implications of Ecology’ says that we are ‘quite literally and unambiguously organisms that are, in their entire structure - from subatomic microcosm to ecosystemic macrocosm - patterns, perturbations, or configurations of energy’. (136) In such a view the traditional notions of the individual or independent self has no meaning.

‘In a postmodern world, where the guiding cosmological narrative has been stripped of the old idea of eternal reward, Oliver seizes on the capacity of the imagination to create paradise here on earth - if only we can learn to love this dynamic tangle of energy in all its manifestations’. (Christensen 145)

Ecology may seem to be at odds with postmodern theory as the former seems vehemently commited to a very specific set of values that have an intrinsic worth, while the latter tends to deride all notions of truth and state that all valuesare culturally constructed. In this worldview there seems no reason to believe that ecological views are superior or having more greater claims to truth. However, they are similar in the way they have both undermined outdated narratives of an essential individual identity and in the case of Oliver’s poetry, have replaced ‘the old, pernicious myth of human independence with an ecological tale of inclusion in a community of interrelated presences.’ *(135)

In her book of essays, Winter Hours (1999) Oliver writes: ‘I believe in the soul - in mine, and yours, and the bluejays, and the pilot whales. I believe each goldfinch flying away over the coarse ragweed has a soul, and the ragweed too, plant by plant,and the tiny stones in the earth below, and the grains of earth as well. Not romantically do I believe this, nor poetically, nor emotionally, nor metaphorically ... but steadily, lumpishly, absolutely.’ (Oliver, Boston, Houghton Mifflin,107-8)

* Christensen, Laird, The Pragmatic Mysticism of Mary Oliver’ in Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction (Edited by J.Scott Bryson, University of Utah Press, 2002)


The purpose of this talk is to firstly give teachers a chance to become acquainted with the poetry of Mary Oliver, if you have not heard of her. To read some of her poems and see if they will fit into your learning programme. I love her poetry and suggested to the Lit Syllabus Committee that she be included on the list as we still have two years to run and if she gets known she can be used in the new course. Oliver’s poetry is quite simple and straight forward and one of the reasons I thought it should be on the list was that it would be understood by most students and on all different levels. Some people might say that Oliver is one of the few poets who celebrate existence and is joyful in her exuberance and epiphanies. This is a big plus for many students who often complain that poets seem to be preoccupied with loss, loss and more loss. My other task today is to place her poetry within a theoretical framework and the one that often refers to Oliver recently is ecocriticism or ecofeminism.

Most of Oliver’s poetry is concerned with nature and humans’ relationship with it. Nature poetry has sometimes been seen as apolitical and conservative - not concerned enough with the material social relations that cause conflict and social injustice. This is also true of spiritual poetry which Oliver’s poetry can also be accused of. However, I would like to examine Oliver’s poetry as political by looking at how many of the changes in attitudes towards race, gender, class, especially since the 1960s (with the rise of postmodern theories that have challenged all hierarchies and dualisms), and how they have opened up the way to view the environment quite differently. This can also be tied to the way spiritual and nature poetry is part of a movement/genre that is questioning our traditional attitudes (mainly patriarchal/capitalistic) and offering radical new ways of offering social and political change. It is essentially a critique of the ecologically destructive social order in which we live.

We can explore Oliver‘s poetry from an environmental perspective, more precisely an ecocritical or ecofeminism position.This methodology might allow us to deconstruct naturalised assumptions of Nature, especially non-human life and the hierarchies that we have constructed, condemning them to merely resources/sources of food ( someone once wrote a book called the sexual politics of meat).

Mary Oliver’s poetry deals with Nature and humans’ place within the natural world. She owes much to Emerson and Thoreau and the American Transcendentalist tradition but she goes further than these writers, as she does the Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, as she shows that we are just another being with no greater claim to superiority or right to dominate. She has been called by Z.M.Jack ‘a mystic and is an American ecstatic comparable to Whitman. More ethereal, than latter-day Romanticism, and, at the same time more workmanlike and attentive to the incarnate world than Christian mystical poets, Oliver’s work occupies a curious middle ground between Rumi’s intoxicated Sufism, Emerson and Thoreau’s Transcendentalism and Whitman’s expansive populism. (Jack)

The Romantic tradition may present rather conservative values. Janet McNew points out that Romantic poetry usually have a speaking male subject exploring his relationship with a mute and female nature. Within this tradition female poets must strike a new chord, set up a new position in which to speak.

Ecocritical theory calls attention to our anthropocentric views and the dualisms and hierarchies of domination. In all cases humans (esp male) are superior and have legitimised their domination of Nature through systems of thought that have subjugated the natural world, viewing it as merely a resource and source of food and labour* (it should be noted that we all have to eat and live but other cultures have shown more respect for nature and the capitalist system over the last 400 years has taken away any restraints that may have made us acknowledge other life forms other than humans - Oliver uses this ideas in ‘Hunter’sMoon’).- Last of the Mohicans - *(Theorists such as Carolyn Merchant, working from a socialist feminist perspective, sees environmental problems as 'rooted in the rise of capitalist patriarchy and the ideology that the Earth and nature can be exploited for human progress' ).Some ecofeminists see the current pattern of dominance as arising in European society, associated with the historical development of science, technology, industrialism and capitalism, while other Ecofeminists see the origins of the present ecological crisis as lying in the specific material and cultural developments of the North/West as reflected in its socioeconomic structures, science and technology, philosophy and religion. For many ecofeminists, particularly those with a theological or a philosophical background, this destructiveness results from the forms of knowledge and belief that justify and sustain western patriarchy. In particular, the Christian and rationalist rejection of the body and the prioritisation of mind or soul. Women are essentialised, naturalised and condemned by their association with the body. - (Mary Mellor)

Other Ecofeminist goes further by associating Nature with women, claiming their domination by patriarchal structures present similarities with their domination. This is a contentious point for many schools of feminism as the association seems based on essentialist assumptions that do more harm to a movement that has been based on deconstructing these very same essentiialist assumptions that have justified women’s inferior position in society.

Nature is represented in Oliver’s poems as a place of redemption, a source of revelation and enlightenment, a spiritual entity, a living organism in which humans are just a small part. It is characterised by interconnectedness - all things are connected and humans cannot presume to stand outside, exploitative and dominating without causing harm to the ecosystem that are a part as well as a spiritual being.

Oliver shows physical sensuous experience to reveal humans in the act of recovering a truth - that we are creatures. Wordsworth uses the same experience for different purposes. According to Janet McNew, ‘Ode: On Intimations of Immortality’ Wordsworth demoted nature from ‘mother’ to ‘homely nurse’ because he wanted to claim a more diverse parentage, a patriarchal one with ‘God, who is our home.’ The Romantic poets, even Wordsworth who wanted to find a closer connection with nature never saw themselves as simply creatures amongst other creatures, as they all die and poets, as Wordsworth’s title suggests, must find a poetic medium to find immortality. Oliver never replaces the natural with a need to a superior supernatural entity. Her poems follow the cycles of the seasons - loss and possible renewal.

Her poetry looks beyond the constructions of culture and rationality - things that have divorced us from natural world and celebrates the primitive, mystical visions.

In ‘Spring’ she observes a bear who has just risen from winter hibernation, awakened by the change in seasons, the growing warmth of spring. There is nothing dramatic or extraordinary in its actions, yet they are also miraculous.The persona is taken up by the sheer presence of the bear, the very miracle of her existence. The bear has simply risen from sleep and it is the persona who thinks of her ‘four black fists/flicking the gravel,/her tongue /like a red fire. The power of the bear is a celebration, her paws are seen as fists, a symbol of might and force, and her tongue shown in the image of fire with all its connotations of creation and destruction.This is a creature of immense beauty, power and majesty. This leds the persona to move to a more philosophical second half, starting with ‘There is only one question:/how to love this world.’ In many ways this is the central core of Oliver’s poetry. In the complex, modern industrial world, with its materialistic and consumersitic answers to ways of living, humans have lost sight of the essentials, especially our relationship to Nature, and indeed our very role and place within it. We must learn to love and be part of the natural environment instead of seeking to stand outside and dominate. It is this connection that animals have not lost and we must regain - in ‘Gannets’ she repeats this idea:
and if I could be what once I was
like the wolf or the bear
standing on the cold shore
I would still see it

In ‘Spring’ the bear is shown as rising to ‘sharpen her claws against/ the silence/of the trees.’ She is not a nice, fluffy Disney bear but a powerful and threatening creature, and all the more beautiful because of this. Her connection with her world is as one: she is seen in the simile ‘like a black and leafy ledge’, linking her to another form of nature - and the trees are silent as she uses them to sharpen her claws so that she can go out and hunt and eat - which is exactly what she does and is.

The persona wants communion with Nature. She might be a human living in towns, using her consciousness to think and write poems, listen to music, but in this moment, a moment of epiphany, she is also aware of being within the natural world. She is also the ‘dazzling darkness’ that is the bear - as it moves, breathes and tastes the world which it is a part. More importantly she pinpoints the three things that make her think all day. The bear’s ‘white teeth’, suggesting its raw savagery, ‘wordlessness’ showing that she does not need to articulate her being into words or have human consciousness to be deemed worthy and ‘her perfect love’, which is the only thing that matters. Her communion with the world she moves in, reinterpreted as the perfect love that is a sense of wholeness, a willingness to feel love, compassion and joy in the simple act of being - a journey inwards rather than into exterior wants, a world where we are are defined through gender, social status, occupation,education ... you know the list.

The poem presents human beings as part of an ecological system. It does away with traditional dualisms and hierarchies that construct human as outside Nature and with the natural right to dominate and destroy. It values simple living and a belief in the connectedness of all things in the natural world, never romanticising or disneyfying the fact that these creatures are wild and must kill to survive. She doesn’t perpetuate Western middleclass attitudes to the wilderness or the human relationship to the land, but subverts some of these by insisting on our place within the system. She has been accused, though, of romanticising in other directions - the redemptive qualities of Nature and the spiritual relationship that can be achieved. She asserts that we may live outside in our glass cities and listen to music and write poetry but we need to return and acknowledge our connection to the natural, to the rest of the universe. In another poems she implies our creation of poems are no better than a plant creating a flower.

This is political - on one hand it is always an implicit critique of the modern industrial state, technological progress and the purely rational and scientific forms of knowledge that do not take into account other ways of knowing. Or the consumeristic and materialistic capitalist state where nature has been a resource to exploit and destroy for the last few centuries and justified within a theoretical framework - or the more recent commodification of Nature, in particular Nature as tourist spectacle.

As an aside:
(I read recently where Hollywood landscape cinematography contributes to an aesthetic appreciation of nature in terms of kinetic pleasure and in this respect, cinema parallels other modern technological representations of nature as tourist spectacle - simulating the the kinetic thrills of speed and immediacy, vicarious sense of mastery over the natural environment. Ivakhiv, Adrian)

In Gannets’ Nature is represented as an indifferent and majestic power. All things are interconnected and death becomes an impossibility in one way as the persona claims, ‘but death is an imposter’. We are not simply distinct, discreet entities but will merge with other beings, becoming part of the universe. The fish taken by the gannet will rise again ‘inseparable/from the gannet’swings.’ Reabsorbed back into the the energies of the universe.

The persona longs for a return to an awareness of the energies that drive the living world of creatures, but she makes an explicit point in never denying or trivialising the realities of lived, material existence: ‘life is real/and pain is real’.

The shape of the poem captures the movement of the gannet’s dive and reappearance.The language is relatively simple like most of her poems - it has a conversational tone and plain diction - but her metaphors are used to contrast aspects of the natural and human world. The gannets dive ‘with a power of blunt spear’, suggestive of early human technology of violence and war, but the adjective ‘blunt’ undermines any malevolence. They explode into the water/like white gloves’, an incongruous image that may visually capture the gannets hitting the water but the ‘white gloves’ are more genteel, associated with middle/upper class civility. Perhaps the explode/gloves correspondence suggests both power and gentleness, incorporating both forces of nature. Significantly these are their movements into water, leaving the water they are seen in an image of the natural world - white flowers. Within the act that defines their being they reemerge as nature - gloves become flowers, a human-related metaphor is resurrected as natural. Later in the poem the fish being taken is first described as being taken within ‘the red purse of the beak’. Visually accurate but the purse with all its association with the world of commerce and buying human wants (including food) is still contained within a metaphor of human business. In contrast when the fish is later fully swallowed a transformation takes place. The fish slides down ‘into a black fire’, a metaphor of creation and destruction and more importantly leading finally to transformation as the fish is now ‘inseparable/from the gannets’ wings’.

Death in Oliver’s poems is not a cause of sadness or concern; there is no supernatural destination but a transformation back into the cycles of nature.In ‘When Death Comes’ death is imaged ‘like the hungry bear in autumn’, ‘like the measle-pox, ‘like an iceberg between the shoulder blades’, but these striking harsh images give way to a more conversational, child-like perception: ‘I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:/what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness. Death appears in many of the poems and is just part of a cycle of renewal. In ‘When Death Comes’ it leads to the affirmation:
‘ And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility’

She also ‘thinks ‘of each life as a flower, as common/as a field daisy, and as singular.’ The values she celebrates are not material success, but personal transformation. The ability to be amazed by life, to live every second.This is not profound, but there is a sincerity, a generosity in her poems that make them quake on the page (at least for me). * (There are critics who see her as a minor poet - read article) In ‘Rain’ she repeats ‘where life has no purpose/and is neither civil nore intelligent’ and ends with a snake unsheathing its old skin:
The snake shivers
but does not hesitate.
He inches forward.
He begins to bleed through
like satin.

In ‘Peonies’ she speaks of the flowers in awed terms:
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?

Her poems are not only about animals that are often revered and glorified. She writes about crows, celebrating their job of scavenger. They are seen in the religious metaphor ‘like black shingles/from some old temple of the sun’ and in ‘Vultures’ she compares them to large dark/lazy/butterflies’ who go looking for death to make it vanish ‘to make of it the miracle:/resurrection.’


‘Strawberry Moon’ traces the life of Elizabeth Fortune, who falls in love, gets pregnant to a man who finds himself a new bride, has the child which is taken away from her and subsequently retires to the attic in shame - invisible from the world, till she returns forty-one years later to take in boarders, but only speaking when required to. The poem uses the familiar nineteenth century trope of the woman hidden away in the attic.

‘Strawberry Moon’ deals explicitly with gender issues. Elizabeth is a woman who transgresses conventional morality and in her shame must not show herself to the outside world. It is a tale of the spatially constricted woman, not only confined to the house, but to a room with no contact or communication. It seems a situation accepted by all and the speaker tells of Elizabeth’s life matter of factly, allowing the tragedy be seen in its own terms, echoing the attitudes of the time. Elizabeth also remains passive and invisible, living out the public and political discourses of her time - hidden away and powerless.

The speaker, who is constructed as the great-neice, asks later in the poem, ‘what happened to the man?’, which her mother replies, without outrage or seeming concerned for the injustice, ‘Nothing/They had three children/He worked in the boatyard’.The man has returned to normal life after his night with Elizabeth and even visits the house, though Elizabeth remains out of sight. Presumably to visit other people, and unconcerned by the prisoner living above.

The opening canto starts nostalgically in a lyrical romantic mode (‘My great aunt Elizabeth Fortune/stood under the honey locust tree/The white moon over her and a young man near.’) The romantic setting is created with images of a white moon, honey locusts, blossoms and grass ‘warm as a bed’. The girl’s innocence is evoked through the repeated images of white, while still being drawn to love with seems consummated in the image ‘The blossoms fell down like white feathers’, with the later suggesting surrender.This lyrical romanticism is brief, like Elizabeth’s freedom, and is replaced with a matter-of-fact tone, plain diction and a detachment till the final canto.

Denied a voice throughout her life when she is finally released it is too late - her life is associated with washing dishes, making beds. Still forced to labour though she has lost her child and mobility.

It is the last canto that reveals the social and political changes - presenting a feminist outrage that contrasts with the details of her life as well as tone and style. The woman who now gather are volatile and aggressive. They are seen as ‘rough as politicians/scrappy as club fighters’. The delicate, fragile, passive stereotype imposed on women has been upturned, and they are constructed as tough street fighters who go beyond the street to the masculine realm of politics to change the world. In the closing lines the ‘white moon’ is repeated, but instead of being a symbol of romance and its associated disempowerment, it only reminds the women of the great injustices suffered by women in a patriarchal culture where they were denied rights and punished by men and women alike. Having their children stolen away in the name of patriarchal morality systems.These new women will not stand by but respond with anger, taking back their own.

I hope you find Oliver’s poetry fascinating and relevant to your students’ needs.

It connects with our course with cultural identity. A culture’s attitude to the natural environment is one of the ways we define ourselves and construct the world around us.

The poetry of the Romantics and spiritual poetry in general has often been seen as apolitical and conservative - ignoring the materialist construction of our lives and social injustice and inequalitie. However, this poetry is far from apolitical and may be, through a ecofeminist reading be reinscribed into a more radical politics that can be seen today in environmental movement and the anti-globalisation protest. It calls into question patriarchal structures, in particular an ecologically destructive social order - one that will spell the end of humankind, and that is one of the salient points - Nature will continue when humanity, having been on earth briefly is no longer here. It questions anthropocentrism and our place in the cosmos.

Mary Oliver also has a few poems that could be studied for Cultural Identity- American Indian.

Learning About the Indians
Hunter’s Moon

Cultural Identity of American Indians in Mary Oliver’s Poetry

The American Indians are constructed as a group disenfranchised and dispossessed of their land, culture and language by the hegemonic cultural practices of the White colonisers. The American Indians’ values on the environment are set up as diametrically opposed to the dominant attitudes present in mainstream Western society. The Indians sees themselves as a part of the natural world and all the creatures within it - there are no anthropocentric assumptions about the Earth as being created only for their benefit though life may be governed by the cycles of birth, death and survival.

In ‘Hunter’s Moon - Eating the Bear’ the Indians eat the meat of another creature but are shown to respect all life as sacred. Moreover, the death is not an end but the bear now becomes part of a greater cycle where it is a source of energy that infuses other life. What is sacred is not so much a God or deity but a natural world which lives and regenerates, an energy (not so different to theoretical physics) that is the source of the cosmos. The Indian persona speaks respectfully and with awe of the relationship that now exists exists between himself and the dead bear: ‘to live inside me:/muscle, layers of sweet leaves/hidden in the pink fat, the maroon flesh/holding your vast power, your grace.’

The very form of the poem captures the communion of human and non-human creatures: it is a liturgy where the narrative is interspersed by indented lines of italics which function as a prayer.The rhythms and diction evokes religious ceremonies where man and animal commune rather than man and God. The interconnectedness is revealed through the sounds and metaphor of the body: ‘my body like a cupped hand’, ‘holding your vast power, your grace’, ‘in the small sinews of my prayers.’

* * *
In ‘Hunter’sMoon - Eating the Bear’ Oliver uses an American Indian as a persona and sets it in the past, a time when traditional cultural practices were intact. The poem shows the interconnectedness of all life forms in the natural world, with humans not outside this cycle, but just another creature. The persona addresses the bear that will soon be killed. The animal is called ‘Good friend; and the address is religious in tone and diction. It is both ritual and feast - the bear is eaten so that the Indian can live but the sacredness of the act is foregrounded. Oliver implicitly shows the difference between the way contemporary Western society deals with the flesh they consume as food (animals denied most characteristics that we have constructed as essential for worth or value so that we can cope with the maltreatment and slaughter of animals) as the persona treats the bear with great respect and takes the killing as serious so that ritual is paramount in balancing the act.

The Indian culture is shown to be in harmony with the natural world. The Indian is part of a culture that believes in the mythology and the relationship between human and non-human life is precious and must be mediated through sacred rituals. The poem shows the need for respect and acknowledgment of all living connections between all creatures, while also suggesting something within all life that we share and is at the core of existence - perhaps a soul or energy. The relationship between the hunter and the bear is presented through the metaphor of the wheel, with the persona likening himself to a spoke of the wheel and the fire (the ‘hub’) which is cooking the animal is the sacred force or energy that is part of all life and therefore connects us all and make the simple cooking of the bear sacred.
I will be leaning in like a spoke to the hub -
the dense orb that is all of us.

The ‘hub’ is the centre of existence, the energy that drives life (in mystical and mythological terms). It has been noted by many anthropologists and theologians, including Karen Armstrong * that early hunting societies created ritual and myth to deal with the enormity of the act of killing other animals when in their cultures animals held a much higher place than our own and were seen in human terms. This is evident in the poem as great emphasis on put into the act of killing and cooking but in explained within a saccred context and a sense of reverence.

The cooking is a part of the ritual - it is not simply eating flesh, but seen in religious terms (‘my body like a cupped hand’) and the creature’s existence is not lost in death but comes to ‘live inside’.

The image of the ‘hub’ where all things spring and are connected like ‘spokes’ on a wheel is the focus of the closing lines of the poem which combines the metaphor of the body and religion - ‘small sinews of my prayers’ with the centre of all being: ‘some invisible dead centre’.

The poem presents Oliver’s ecological philosophy, a view that has been informed by writers such as Thoreau and Whitman, and more recently by the post-Rachel Carson environmental movement and Gaia theory. In ‘Hunter’s Poem’ Oliver shows that these modern viewpoints existed within the culture of indigenous peoples, especially the North American Indian. The poem is a celebration of the humane ecological consciousness that informed their cultural identity - one that is not dominated by secular materialism - and implys a critique of Western cultural practices and the belief that the environment and its creatures are simply a resource that can be treated without respect.

In other poems that focus on Indian culture there is a more explicit critique of Western colonialism and the dispossession of Indian land and culture. ‘Tecumseh’ is about a famous Shawnee warrior who fought the military forces of the white colonisers for twenty years. The Shawnee Nation was the largest group of tribes in Ohio but when the settlers in western Virginia claimed that the Shawnee land belonged to them, the Shawnee began to fight the settlers. Tecumseh lost his village and some of his family in the early fighting and grew up intent on uniting all the Indians into one great Indian Nation.

The poem is a narrative of cultural dispossession, bordering on genocide. Tecumseh’s resistence is constructed as heroic in the face of overwhelming forces: ‘He vowed/to keep Ohio and it took him/over twenty years to fail.

Throughout the poem the persona (presumably non-Indian) positions the reader to feel the iniquity and injustice of the treatment of the indigenous population in the spread of white settlement. She presents her view didactically reminding the reader that ‘there’s a sickness/worse than the risk of death and that’s/forgetting that we should never forget.’ Oliver’s poem is an attempt to redress the ‘forgetting’ that has taken place over the last two centuries and that the terrors of the past should not be forgotten or explained away in the rhetoric of the time, but must be recalled and retold. She repeatedly uses rhetorical questions in the second stanza to show her indignation at the plight of the Indians (‘Where is the Shawnee now?’) and the duplicity of governments and bureaucracies in addressing cultural dispossession: ‘Do you know? Or would you have to/write to Washington, and even then,/whatever they said, would you believe it?’

The poem moves towards the death of Tecumseh and adds a mystical element to the Indian’s death - suggesting a belief system opposed to the rational traditions of Western culture. Tecumseh’s body is never found and though not overtly supporting this mysticism the persona includes that he ‘turned into a little boy again, and leaped/into a birch canoe and went/rowing home down the river.’ However, the main thrust in this final section is to state that if she ever met him he would be justifiably angry at what had happened to his people in his own time but also for what has happened to Indian culture in the last two hundred years.

* Armstrong, Karen A Short History of Myth (2005)

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