Among poets, the lauded and the unrecognized share the suspicion that their peers are against them. For years now or maybe forever, it’s seemed that the only responsible attitude toward poetry is one of skepticism, pointed fatigue, even hatred. Hating poetry, especially hating it in scare quotes, became a fashionable route back to loving poetry with the publication of Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry in 2016, but postures of engaged dissent both preceded and survived the conversations occasioned by his book. I’ve texted Marianne Moore’s timeworn disclaimer, “I, too, dislike it” with a self-abasing *blah blah blah* to more than one friend who does not read poetry or resents its obscurity, as I believe them to have this in common with some poets.
This resentment of poetry is evident on both sides of a murky divide that’s perpetually redrawn in new terms. On one side, writers of coherent lyrics anchored by a stable “I”—some of whom have weathered decades of vanguardist rupture—defend intelligibility against what they fear poetry has become. In the title essay of American Originality (2017), Louise Glück, hardly a partisan of traditional forms, shows how a sincere investment in poetic voice can be a form of protest against the genre’s drift toward the impenetrable. Glück argues that the frantic and self-doubting pursuit of a more original style is defining of contemporary poetry, and of Americanness, and damns both for it:
A reciprocal terror of deficit within the self may account for the American audience’s readiness to be talked down to, to be excluded, to call great art that which it does not understand. As American poets increasingly position themselves against logic and observation, the American audience (often an audience of other writers) poignantly acquiesces.
On the other side, the marginal, political, or merely experimental announce break after self-conscious break from a perceived mainstream, decrying what poetry has always been. The terms of the break change rapidly and defy coherent narration. In 1966’s “Black Art,” Amiri Baraka declared, “Poems are bullshit unless they are / teeth or trees or lemons piled / on a step;” Muriel Rukeyser’s 1968 line “No more masks! No more mythologies!” was quickly taken up as an authorizing slogan for second wave feminist poetries; the antisensical efforts of ’80s Language poets were posed as challenges to what Charles Bernstein called “official verse culture.” Baraka and Rukeyser might complement Glück’s defense of poetic voice with their own, while the Language poets and their Conceptual descendants like Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith might dismiss the forms of all three as ideological fictions. But consistent across the past half-century are the paired impulses of disavowal and self-defense: something is insufficient in the poetry that surrounds me, and that poetry’s failure obscures the aims and methods of my own.
Today, investment in the problem of poetry’s ongoing redefinition appears to be waning, out of exhaustion, indifference, or lifted spirits. Much noise has been made online about a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts survey showing poetry readership to be increasing, its audience growing younger and more diverse. Many poets now published in Poetry magazine (formerly a bastion of Bernstein’s “official verse culture”) have large followings and active social media presences. A recent Atlantic feature, optimistically titled “How Poetry Came to Matter Again,” credits this new cohort with abandoning the fault lines of a previous century’s poetry, drawing freely on the resources of both first-person lyric and its historical antagonists.
Not all contemporary poets are as sanguine. In her new prose collection, A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, Anne Boyer traces her own breaks from existing poetry while admitting that we have run out of ways to restage the confrontation:
And what is the trial of today if art has lived on after its failed self-abolition, aerosolized, manic and ambulatory, freed from the constraints of medium and modality, living on as a form of management, living on a form of flexi-feeling, living on in an already granted self-dissolution, living on as resilience in all the resilient horror?
Boyer is my favorite poet among those who remain preoccupied with such questions, and the poet writing today who I think pulls them off most convincingly. Unlike the poets celebrated in the Atlantic, Boyer is ambivalent about the uses and fate of the genre. The first essay in Handbook, titled, “No,” catalogs principled refusals, some postures of dissent that withhold the wink and the nudge. “It presides over the logic of my art,” she writes of no, turning her back on “the merciless and circulatory conditions of all the capitalist yes.” Hers is a different vision of how poetry might matter, making the case for poets who decline to make a case for themselves:
The pantheon of those who won’t is the best church poetry has to offer. It’s a temple perfumed with the incense of sacrificed literary reputation, littered with bankruptcy notices for cynical cultural capital, warmed by the greater fire of the intrinsic, populated by the most famous and the most anon. In it, you will find no poetry in the shape of a cowardly maybe, or fluorescent yes, or cloying, collaborating, reactionary, status-loving, and desperately eager whatever-they-say-I’ll-do.
Boyer’s negativity is capacious, incorporating explicit political action as well as more opaque forms of noncompliance. In “No” it’s exemplified by both children who refuse dinner and workers who slow the line. “Some days my only certain we is this certain we that didn’t, that wouldn’t, whose bodies or spirits wouldn’t go along.”
The appeal of a generalized opting-out, of “just can’t,” is clear enough in a world where new methods are continually being honed to quantify and extract value from our time, feelings, and talents. (We’ve learned to call this condition neoliberalism, precarity, the gig economy, Twitter.) Those who tire of poetry’s defensive gestures are right to be wary of this position, too—of the appeal of refusing to appeal. As it has at every juncture, disavowal threatens to congeal into its own brand, to be leveraged by the savvy oppositional poet into academic appointments and fellowship funding.
Boyer recognizes this bind, but she’s not content to bemoan it. Anticipating some more positive project toward which refusal might propel her, she writes, “The no of a poet is so often a yes in the carapace of no.” Much of Handbook’s energy derives from Boyer’s recurrent efforts to exhume that yes; much of my investment as a reader was sustained by the desire to understand it better. Though she occasionally refers to living poets, Boyer doesn’t affiliate with a particular school, cohort, or poetic tradition. She cannot share their programmatic confidence. In an essay without a single declarative, she asks, “Is the trial of today that if there is no answer in and as poetry then all poetry till the revolution comes is only a list of questions?”
This relative autonomy heightens the interest as well as the ambiguity of her own incipient yes. Other writers, so often rewarded by the institutions they indict, make only periodic cameos in the essays of Handbook. Boyer allies herself instead with the more dedicated: her opening paragraph invokes ascetics, arsonists, and caged animals who fling feces at the humans who watch them.
A Handbook of Disappointed Fate collects essays, fables, and speculative polemics written over the past decade, spanning Boyer’s trajectory from relative obscurity to relative celebrity. Many pieces were previously published online or in small-circulation art and poetry journals. Some have explicit occasions: one was commissioned in the early weeks of Occupy Kansas City, another inspired by Missy Elliott’s comeback video “WTF,” and a number solicited for special issues and conferences on the relationship between art and politics. As signaled by “No,” gratifying juxtapositions recur throughout Handbook. Boyer is avowedly idiosyncratic in her reading and listening, foraging across cultural history for teachers and comrades. In “My Life,” Mary J. Blige and Lyn Hejinian are made representative of “the disproportionate violence of capital against certain kinds of bodies,” as well as “the unreliable fit of names and lives to what is called by them.” Colette’s Cheri inspires a brief essay on the paired antagonisms of romantic love and time’s passage. The 1953 Situationist text Formulary for a New Urbanism is rewritten as a program for “insubordinately sensitive publics.” Missy Elliott instructs her audience in the art of moving “any way it needs to,” which is also a politics of “not moving forward unless you want to.”
The resulting book only occasionally devolves into vagueness; it’s more often thrilling to follow Boyer as she modulates her governing ethic of refusal across referents and scales. Despite its breadth of inquiry, questions about poetry itself reemerge across Handbook, often surprisingly and usually affixed to an essay’s apparent subject—as metonyms, instances of cross-pollination, or sources of potential resolution. In “Kansas City,” for example, poetry is suspect because its history of prioritizing form over content resembles the way Kansas City’s romantic veneer obscures the city’s “content” of poverty and white supremacy. (Poetry is suspect, too, because of poets’ material role in gentrifying the city, drawn by cheap rent and the allure of urban decay.) Over the course of Handbook, poetry figures with or as illness, isolation, economic insecurity, sewing, dancing, architecture, and opera.
As is perhaps inevitable in a retrospective collection, Handbook doesn’t advance a sustained argument, instead assembling a range of discretely authored provocations, tentative proposals, experiments, and hypotheses. Though Boyer’s dissatisfaction with actually existing poetry is a persistent theme, the degree of her disappointment or faith in art-making fluctuates, as I assume it must for all poets. But the book does convey a deliberate organization—a cluster on music here, another on cancer there—with its most adamant refusals concentrated in its first half.
The forest fire of these opening essays clears ground for Boyer’s new myths. Some of her more willfully imaginative essays risk whimsy, as in the proposed poems sewn from poets’ hair or tattooed onto cats in “Difficult Ways to Publish Poetry.” But in Boyer’s hands the fable and the allegory are powerful conceptual tools, alternately diagnostic and prefigurative. One way capitalism and patriarchy discipline their subjects is by shunting specific lives into predictable narratives, a dynamic that Handbook’s concluding essay terms “the law’s anxious categorization.” A number of Boyer’s fables express this tendency of power to produce types: the exigencies of survival make lambs of the oppressed, for example, anonymous and herdlike, just as power’s predatory vantage turns the oppressor into a bird of prey.
Interwoven with these fables, meant to clarify the world as it exists, are others that begin to imagine an as-yet impossible future. Most seem deliberately abstract, even evasive—in Boyer’s allegorical retelling of Langston Hughes’s Senate subcommittee interrogation, “the poet” insists to “the tribunalizers” that “poetry is not evidence: it is the slippery other of the law.” By straddling the descriptive and the anticipatory, “No,” again, models Handbook in miniature: the essay’s first half valorizes “just not” against the opportunism of career poets, only to return to an ideal of poetry as “cognitive rehearsal” for a better world than the one refused. In the wake of such adamant refusal, the idealism jars: “We can make a poetry without language because language as the rehearsal material of poetry has made the way for another poetry, that of objects, actions, environments and their arrangements.”
The most searing essays in Handbook would have been equally at home in Boyer’s previous book of poems and prose, Garments Against Women (2015), which stakes out a world for writing outside of the world of literature. Far from the cities and campuses in which literary careers are usually made, Garments issues from Boyer’s experiences of poverty and single motherhood in the Midwest. The pieces in the book alternate between antiromantic interrogations of life constrained by exploitation and indictments of writing that neglects that reality—or, worse, that idealizes or obscures it in the service of power. (“Monuments are interesting,” she writes, “mostly in how they diminish all other aspects of the landscape.”)
In an interview with fellow poet Amy King, Boyer confirmed that the garments of her title are, in fact, literature: “[L]iterature is against us. And when I say ‘literature,’ I mean something with historical specificity, seen with all of its brutality intact.” Here Boyer’s target is bourgeois art and its primary form, the sanitizing lyric, the historical preoccupations of which have been beauty, nature, and the pastimes of bosses. Literature, in this interview as in Garments, “is a magic circle drawn around the language games of a class of people.” It’s also something most people can’t or won’t make time for. The most famous piece from Garments, “Not Writing,” lists many kinds of text, both real (“I am not writing ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ by Anne Boyer”) and imagined (“I am not writing a new constitution for the republic of no history”), which Boyer is kept from writing by work, disinterest, and the competing demands of life among others. Though it moves easily between descriptive, abstract, and literary-critical registers, the consistent subject of Garments is “survival-life,” the shadow cast by necessity and figured in the poem “No World but the World” as a bear that roams her apartment: “The brute is always saying something, is saying give me the labor of your body, not the work of your hands. We fall asleep in that bear’s arms.” Boyer returns often to this particular cluster of affects. The world she inhabits, especially in Garments, is at once crushing and mundane, intolerable and tolerated daily.
Despite its adamant nonprovenance in the self-devouring literary world—or perhaps because of literary institutions’ eagerness to incorporate criticism—Garments Against Women was widely praised, including in The New York Times, and has earned Boyer increasingly illustrious laurels, most recently a Whiting Award and the inaugural Cy Twombly Award for Poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. In the months before Garments’ publication, Boyer was diagnosed with and began treatment for breast cancer, a trial that informs Handbook’s latter half. The Undying, a memoir about needing care in a country that at once devalues and extracts value from it, is forthcoming next year from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, bringing Boyer one rung closer to the commercial mainstream.
This apparent ascent from self-sustainingly marginal poetry communities to broader acclaim isn’t registered in Handbook. Its essays alternately consign Boyer’s good-faith participation in actually existing poetry to a less alienated past or a yet-unrealized future. The book is not organized chronologically and its primary preoccupations are not autobiographical, but the earliest glimpse it affords of her career begins with her self-exile from poetry at age 23, in 1996: “What I knew when I got to Kansas City was that I couldn’t be a poet—that I refused to be one—and I was soon inside whatever was not a poem.” Feeling obligated to choose between poetry and the world, Boyer chose the world, abandoning poetry to work with mothers and children in “the shelters and community centers of Kansas City.” In another essay, describing what seems to be a later period after a divorce and the birth of her daughter, Boyer remembers her unspecified efforts to participate in poetry—presumably through the small local scenes, independent presses, and readings that keep most poets going—as like being “a ghost having a conversation with ghosts.”
In The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner attributes our disappointment in poetry to our impossible expectations: we want the universally transcendent, but we get only words. Boyer’s nonparticipation may at times resemble Lerner’s hatred but is actually, I think, its opposite. She, too, condemns actually existing poetry to constant failure, its unmet task being not to transcend reality but to transform it in the service of those whom poetry has long neglected. When Boyer asks, “And what is the direct trial of this today for the poet if there has not yet been any poetry?” her simultaneous invocation of the insufficient work of practicing poets and the ideal in whose shadow they labor may remind us of Lerner; her specifying follow-up question, less so: “If what has gone on before us in the name of poetry has been in the service of tyrants and kings and presidents and CEOs?” Despite her admiration for the ascetic, Boyer’s poetic telos isn’t God but revolution—the “radical re-organization of the world” for and by we who can’t help but live in it. But unlike the historical avant-gardes, Boyer knows revolution can only happen outside the poem, in a form and time that poetry can’t summon.
If it can’t bring revolution, what is poetry for? In the world outside poetry, Boyer finds her people—or rather, she deems her people to be for and of this world: poor women and children, the overworked, the sick, her friends, certain artists, and, inevitably, those poets with whom she feels affinity in alienation (Fred Moten, Dana Ward, Karin Brodine, and others who appear throughout Handbook as either characters or quotes). These figures take turns instructing her and us in the cultivation of an insurgent negativity against art’s available forms and capital’s rewards for them—an orientation Boyer calls, in an essay on Willie Nelson, “counter-aspirational.”
As in Garments, Handbook occasionally refers to aspiration’s alternative as “survival,” but Boyer’s account of it mostly abstains from the sentimentality that can attend that word. Her fable “When the Lambs Rise Up Against the Bird of Prey” imagines a herd’s collective persistence as something more immediate and less valiant than revolution:
The lamb knows how to read the feeling of the form of each all together, the fears and pleasures and neutralities of each other, what is expressed in a bleat or twitch when the lamb is with the next one and there is never one lamb alone. . . . The lamb does not learn by following desire or refining it: the lamb learns by understanding the world as a system, in all its variation and relation, so that it may effectively remain alive inside it.
To “learn by following desire” has been the project of many modern feminisms. In Boyer’s essay it’s a predatory method, exemplified by the circling bird of prey, who “has as a hobby the refinement of its own good taste” and therefore produces only distorted knowledge of the landscape it surveys at a distance, from above. (Boyer’s feminism starts elsewhere, in caretaking, illness, and “the suffering called gender named by capital as love.”) But what begins as a consoling vindication of the lamb’s intelligence becomes another fable of the coopted career poet, leading back to the failure toward which poetry can’t help but angle—back, that is, to aspiration and desire. In pursuit of defensive knowledge of the world, Boyer’s lamb loses its innocence, separates from the herd, and learns the language of the predator:
This is the saddest part of the fable, the part about the foolish lamb who wanted to show off what it had learned. . . . This is the part about the lamb who narrates, which means this is the saddest part of the fable because the lamb who tells the story of itself as a lamb is the lamb who is rehearsing its own eulogy. The lamb who narrates the education provided to the lamb from its lambness is the type of lamb who confesses to wolves.
Like the difficult poets of whom Glück complains, redescribing their obscurity as a chosen disengagement from the world that hasn’t noticed them, Boyer’s aspiring lamb learns finally to call itself “dinner.” To Boyer’s credit, the “it” of this lamb is often also a “we”: Boyer has an MFA and teaches in a creative writing department. The predator’s logic is also, “for the time being, the logic of the world.”
Contemporary poetry’s failed self-abolition, we lambs who call ourselves dinner, that Trojan horse of the poet’s no bearing a covert yes—each demonstrates Boyer’s disinclination to content herself with an empowered formulation or a stable dream of repair. “I’m not just a philistine,” she writes in Handbook, “I’m a philistinism amplifier, doing it in public, and a doomsayer, too.” Following Boyer as she holds herself to the implications of a given essay’s chosen metaphor, governing allegiance, or allegorical frame can be thrilling. Because her negativity is rigorous rather than cynical, its elaboration feels deft, inclusive, well ventilated and responsive, rather than claustrophobically insistent. Boyer is always ready to pivot when a train of thought requires it. The logic of the educated lamb, for instance, ends up invalidating a poetry devoted exclusively to the narration of harm or the repetition of no. “To tell a story about being a lamb and to tell it in the language of a wolf is to tell a story that is foreplay to the wolf’s pleasure, prelude to the lamb’s demise.” Not bourgeois art, not revolution, and not consolation through pure refusal. What else, then, might a poem be?
Boyer is not alone in pressing the question. In “Please Stand Still the Doors Are Closing,” an essay that draws connections between how illness and art divide one from the world, she reflects that in 2014, it seemed like “a lot of what was going on [in poetry] had to do with clarifying these contradictions” between poets’ emancipatory aims and the inadequacy of their work to both political change and “survival-life.” Handbook is busily populated by artists who’ve aided Boyer’s thinking on this bind. Her direct conversant in “Please Stand Still” is poet and theorist Fred Moten, who plays the role of defending poetry’s responsiveness to immaterial needs and whose own counteraspirational investments are in many ways allied with Boyer’s. Her prose can match Moten’s in conceptual density and suggestiveness, though she more often and more patiently mimes the forms of methodical argument. Boyer is prone to lists, logical suppositions, and explicitly enumerated implications, delivering what she calls in Garments “a taxonomical satisfaction: the category of thing, not thing, almost thing, of maybe thing but not quite.”
Like Boyer, Moten has spent years developing a slippery project of refusal across multiple books and genres. The Undercommons, a brief and polemical essay collection coauthored with Stefano Harney, has made Moten something of a hero of noncompliance—his preferred term is “fugitivity”—especially among graduate students and other insecure laborers in the contemporary university. There as well as in his poems, Moten credits black social life with offering an alternative scene of ongoing creative engagement, opening up a space for poetry that’s premised on neither political liberation nor speculative deferral. Rather than invoking a radically reorganized world to come, Moten exalts a social world that already exists and sustains collaborative thought—or “study”—flourishing beneath the radar of the terrible present.
Boyer cites his poem “barbara lee [THE POETICS OF POLITICAL FORM]” in both Handbook and her earlier interview with Amy King, but the realized communal feeling Moten imagines for poetry strikes me as distinct from the modes of living and writing modeled in Boyer’s own work. “Poetically man dwells, amped, right next to the buried market, at the club underneath the quay,” he writes. Boyer retains faith in politics and therefore sacrifices some faith in poems. Moten’s poetry “enacts and tells the open secret;” Boyer’s poetry “has not yet been.” Most of Handbook’s collective satisfactions occur in a future tense. “Toward a Provisional Avant-Garde” concedes that “a state of general okayness” may be “completely currently unavailable to those who suffer, who is almost everyone,” except in the imagination, or as a premonition of “the possibility that there may someday be some actual material okayness.”
The invocation in poetry of a revolution beyond the poem may align Boyer more closely with the loose cohort associated with the independent press Commune Editions, a self-described “purveyor of poetry & other antagonisms” helmed by Joshua Clover, Jasper Bernes, and Juliana Spahr. (The latter two are thanked in Handbook for their friendship.) The Occupy movement and Bay Area activism against police violence and University of California tuition hikes loom large in CE’s origin story, marking a rare moment in which commitments to poetry and militant political struggle were felt by CE’s founders to be entangled rather than at odds. CE imagines a reintegration of the individual poet and the collective horizon of antistate uprising by way of poetry, “for reading and writing explicitly against the given world, always aware that it begins inside that world.” In her most hopeful moments, Boyer, too, imagines a comparable harmony between poetry and action, though always assigning the two to separate times and scenes. (Recall her description of written poetry as a “rehearsal material” for another poetry of objects and environments.)
The integrative ideal behind Commune Editions led Bernes, Clover, and Spahr to advocate “the self-abolition of the poet” in Jacket2 in 2014, Boyer’s year of contradictions. Like Boyer, the Communards charged poetry with legitimating the ruling class, tasked throughout its history with “the vindication of the ways of god (or the gods) to man.” Also like Boyer, their thinking propelled them swiftly toward no:
Once poetry is defined as an explicit antagonism to this legacy—and to the official, sanctifying role that the poem might play in bourgeois society—the categories of poet and poem and poetry are animated by curious contradictions, like so many of the categories in capitalism. The vocation of the poet becomes self-destruction; the vocation of the poem, self-abolition. The realization of poetry can only be had through the destruction of its specific instances.
But the Communards differ from Boyer in two essential ways. The first, apparent in their call for poetry’s destruction, is the guardrail provided by a more explicitly developed Marxism. The self-abolition of the poet anticipates the self-abolition of the working class in the coming revolution, promising a final redemption from negativity that Boyer less easily envisions. (“In this way, poetry enters into alliance with that class whose historical mission is the abolition of all classes, itself included, and the production of communism therefrom,” their brief essay concludes.) Their coherent ideology leads Bernes, Clover, and Spahr to more snugly yoke poetry to both the possibilities and consolations of anticapitalist politics; Commune Editions has published many poets who struggle inventively, often movingly, to represent the experience of activism in the content of their poems. In a 2011 essay in The American Reader, Clover named this emergent tendency “the Insurrectionary Turn.”
This articulated investment in collective action also generates a different set of tones and moods than Boyer’s, though Commune Editions has no house style. Spahr’s poems in That Winter the Wolf Came (2015), for example, can tend toward tight chains of declaratives that move measuredly, sometimes wistfully, into and out of moments of political consonance—“Together. There. Under the tarp. For a few minutes. Unevenly, there. But there. Together. Still.”—while Chris Nealon’s long lines and emphatic punctuation are at once earnest and breezy, as in his chapbook The Victorious Ones (2015): “My friends encourage me, take care of me / ‘You should totally become an anarchist! Just stay off the listserv.’” But the shared preoccupation with a present tense of political assembly in public, in the street—not, as for Moten, under or beside it—lends itself to catharsis, conspiratorial modes of address, and nimble weaving between eruptive enthusiasm and ironic deflation. Wendy Trevino’s “Revolutionary Letter,” included in her recent CE volume Cruel Fiction, is representative in this regard, ending, “tl;dr: you don’t need or want / the people who you know / aren’t ‘with you’ to be / with you. really, you don’t.”
With the exception of one brief essay occasioned by Occupy Kansas City, Handbook demonstrates no sustained desire to bottle and convey the kinetic immediacy of collective action in the present. This is at least partly circumstantial: Boyer writes brilliantly in multiple essays about the ways in which her cancer treatment cut her off from public life. But she also stays skeptical of any poetry that might reliably serve rather than buck or betray the poet.
Actually existing poetry disappoints because it occupies an insufficient middle ground. It gestures beyond the real world but misunderstands its place in it, as well as the means by which that world might be changed. Complementary to the avant-garde’s self-vindicating obscurity, Lerner’s transcendental strain implies a kind of resigned realism: We are only poets, after all; why should we be held responsible for the fate of a world that ignores us? Boyer struggles instead to write a literature of both counteraspirational survival and its flagrantly unreal future, linking the impossibility of poetry to the impossibility of the present. One of the briefest essays in Handbook begins with the reading of books and ends with the reading of objects and people, concluding, “how a person should read is how a person must read, which is at least in duplicate, both always in this world and looking for another.”
Against both fugitive study and political assembly, Handbook worries that we live in “a time when there is no ground left to go under.” If one alternative to the twinned failure of poetry and capitalism is the twinned project of refusal and survival, insufficient on its own, Boyer points toward another alternative in her penchant for brazenly imaginative forms. Many of Handbook’s essays assert the impossibility of contemporary life by attending closely to poverty, racism, labor, and illness. Alongside these, Boyer’s fables and hypothetical programs respond not with the romance of activism or present-tense sociality, but with romance that declares itself such, not by announcing the reality it hopes to inaugurate but by admitting its inability to make itself real. A fable does not pretend to narrow the gap between writing and the world.
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