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Emergence of a Bahá'í Consciousness in World Literature:
The Poetry of Roger White

by Ron Price

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Chapter 4


This essay would benefit from access to White's archival collection held now at the Canadian National Bahá'í Centre in Thornhill and at the Bahá'í World Centre in Haifa. But it has not been my intention to cover White's entire collection of poetry, letters, essays and references in the general literature. Rather, I am attempting a general introduction to White's work since, as yet, no introduction has become available and it has been ten years since he passed away. The time is right, it seemed to me and to my publisher, for such an introductory work. The focus in this book is, in the main, on White's poetry, his major publications, not on his letters, essays and the several genres within which he worked as a creative artist with words. Some attention to these other genres is found here in the name of bringing White closer to his audience and introducing a new generation of readers to this delightful poet who happened along at a critical stage in the emergence from obscurity of the religion he had been associated with since the late 1940s.

White's first published work, the first work in what could be called the Early stage of White's poetic development,[1] was a chapbook in 1947. It was entitled Summer Window and was published by Cherry Press in Belleville.[2] One day a student of White will examine its contents as the White industry, now in its earliest days, expands, as it surely will. Even by his mid to late teens White needed to write. This need defined the basic premise upon which everything else depended. It was one of the two or three great categorical imperatives of his life. A second chapbook of poetry, also containing poetry from these early days, was published in 1973 by Haifa Publications. He called it Sketches of 'Abdu'l-Bahá.3 I leave the examination of this poetry to future scholars. One chapbook that Roger sent me at some time in the 1980s, Old Songs/New Songs, contains several poems about White's early life before the age of twenty-one.[4] It was certainly written before he was twenty-one. White called these poems his juvenilia. Two of them, sent to me under separate cover, he said he wrote 'circa 1947.' He wrote at the top of the page 'juvenilia.' He said he found these "while sorting through his papers."[5] I reproduce them here, the earliest poems that I have read from what became nearly half a century of writing poetry. There is no indication that his earliest work gave him "the creeps" as the earliest work of the great American poet Wallace Stevens affected him as he looked back from the pinnacle of his literary success.[6]

These were the early days of White's education as a poet. Through the experience of writing, White was learning what literary structures fitted his talents. They were important lessons. Often a poet does not learn until too late. Ezra Pound learned late that The Cantos were basically incoherent and a lifetime of over fifty years and 800 pages may have been useful for a biography of Pound but they served largely as an unvisited mausoleum[7] for his poetry. White, on the other hand, slowly fashioned his craft without the harsh judgement that some poets inflict on themselves. One of White's contemporaries, Robert Lowell, for example, complained that his(Lowell's) poems "seemed like prehistoric monsters dragged down into the bog."[8] White's poetic edge seems lighter, humorous, easier on his psyche even in the late forties and fifties. By the seventies and eighties, then, White had refined his literary structures. He profited, it would appear, from that early education.

Emily Dickinson had a way
of passing every tidy day;
home, the hearthside and a cat,
to pen a verse, she asked just that.

My home is bare,
my hearthside's cold,
my cat has mange,
I'm growing old.

What shall I do should all disperse?
Pen a verse, son, pen a verse.

White was only sixteen at the time he wrote this. The wonderful poet Emily Dickinson had already made her mark on White's consciousness. Few Canadian youths at sixteen would have enjoyed the perspicacity to appreciate this enigmatic poet of the nineteenth century who, with Walt Whitman and Emerson, gave a poetic voice of some profundity to American society in that long and arduous century. White, who helped hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Bahá'ís in the 1980s and 1990s, most of whom had joined what one writer called this chrysalis global church in the period of its first six Teaching Plans 1937 to 1979, to articulate their own voice within the framework of the writings of their Faith. In the 1940s White was already defining his own voice. It was a voice that had little to do with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Yankees or so much that was popular culture.[9] "There is no clear window into the inner life of a person," wrote the philosopher Derrida, "for any window is always filtered through the glaze of language, signs and the process of signification." [10]In these poems White gives us some of that glaze. He also gives us the very beginnings of that narrative identity which developed with the years into a tool of great power and strength and which is "a task of the imagination, not a fait accompli."[11] This imagination empowered White to identify with the great range of historical personages, a process, an activity, I discuss in a later chapter.[12]

I have included a second item of White's juvenilia here because it shows the kindness that was already a part of his style, his humour and his forgiving nature, and was also a part of his character, a character which endeared him to people until his death in 1993 and continues to do so through his poetry.

Now that you have bruised my heart
and, tiring, said that we must part,
I'll smile your favourite smile and say,
"The gods be with you on your way,"
and brush aside remembering
and wish you joy and everything
that's good.

But if your angel deems it wise
to overcast your summer skies,
and other lovelings whom you hold
turn aside and leave you cold;
if some small wraith of misery
haunts your nights with thought of me,
that's good!

There is self-disclosure here but it is oh so gentle, so indirect, so light. There is the humour, the surprise element, the delight. And this would be how the reader would come to know White and his poetry in the years ahead. The reader might have to draw on a dictionary now and then, for White was quite a wordsmith. He digs deeply below life's surface and into his large vocabulary and he requires, often, some patient study on the part of his readers. Such patience would yield a payoff, though; readers would come to know White as a friend. For many, they would learn something about the Bahá'í Faith and life that could not be learned in the available commentaries on the Cause and in the burgeoning literature increasingly available. What I provide here in this brief biography will not detract, as biography often does, from the brilliant opacities that are many of White's poems.

The friendship that readers can enjoy is not to be based on personal acquaintance, reciprocity and having cups of tea in his home or theirs, but the kind of friendship that the Pythagoreans enjoyed, a friendship based on being part of a universal brotherhood--in the case of the Pythagoreans the universe of several Greek city states in the sixth century BC. These friends were assumed to be friends regardless of whether they knew each other. It would be a friendship not based on physical proximity or face-to-face meetings. It would be a friendship embedded in silence, in his poetry and the words of his letters. It would be a friendship that yielded no anecdotes, except those deriving from the printed word, from White's poetry. It would be a friendship characterized by sudden interruptions, sudden communications that commented in some unique way on the strangeness, the fascinating complexity, the surprising nature of human community and its existential dilemmas. Hearing not seeing is the condition of friendship for White, at least for most of those who are his readers. There is camaraderie; there is Voltairean irreverence and there is also a profound respect. In addition, people have a basic need to make evident their deepest feelings about life, part of everything they are and know. Readers of White, each in their different ways, felt they were partly satisfying this basic need in his poetry. For hundreds, thousands, of Bahá'ís it was a refreshing relationship, a relationship of self-discovery with the help of an art form that never ended. It could always be re-created.[13]

White knew he could not heal the multitude of wounds people had who came near to his poetry. But as a friend he might help with understanding. I'm not so sure White was conscious of much of this at sixteen, in 1945, at the onset of his poetic experience. One poem he wrote, which first appeared in his Old Songs/New Songs, does go a long way to describe what he did know, where he was at, in his mid-to-late teens, say 1945 to 1950. It is called New Song. In it he refers to a certain cynicism that set in during these years. "A clean, cold, wind" left him feeling like "a stripped young tree in autumn with a cynical winter setting in." This spiritual state, he goes on, left him with "nothing large enough to house his impulse to believe."[14]

White continues, though, and describes his psychological, his spiritual, condition in 1947 or 1948, when he first came across the Bahá'í Faith in those meetings in Kingston Ontario that he began to attend:

The need lay as quiet, unhurried and insidious as a seed
snowlocked in a bleak and lonely landscape.

These words could very well describe the condition of the needs of millions of young men and women in their late teens(as well as many adults): quiet, unhurried, insidious, waiting Micauber-like for something to turn up, waiting for a sense of direction to emerge in their lives, waiting for some love which would sweep them off their feet, some career to give them some centering and some meaning. This is how White describes his early years of contact with this small group of Bahá'ís in Kingston:
But forgiveness came, an unsuspecting flooding rain
and the seed was there, a promise kept.
Even your rejection was forgiven
and, in the burgeoning, lovesap slowly stirred.
God hadn't died, of course, abandoned us for Russia,
nor moved to Uganda.

The lines are evocative and present a sensitive and humorous portrait of the first stirrings of White's beliefs, beliefs that would produce some of the finest poetry written by Bahá'ís about their experience in the second half of the first century of the Formative Age. In White there is an etiquette of expression. There is that tact which is a part of fine poetry. There is, too, a passionate, sympathetic, insightful, astute, attractive personality who often made the writing of others seem more important than his own.. Often only a fraction of the output of a poet is really first rate. In White's case the fraction is large.

The following poem take us back to even earlier years in White's life. Innocent Ogress,[15] refers to a period of "cloudless years," probably his late childhood, 1937 to 1941, or early adolescence, 1942 to 1945. He focuses in this poem on these magic days of his early life, cloudless years
when make-believe ran rampant
and each young heart
loved his private witch
who stoked delicious fears.

In this poem White describes a spinster in Belleville who lived alone in a big grey house. He writes:
she always wore one black gown
so this woman was our witch
such adventures I remember we would have
trailing the old woman about
shivering with sweet delightful fear.
she bound stray children into sacks
and kept them in her basement
but, of course,
we never really caught her in the act.

Two other poems, in a collection of poetry published in 1981, give us some insight into White's life with his mother and father during his childhood and adolescence. In Memoriam: John Bernard White 1904-1971 does not tell us a great deal about his life with his father, although it reveals some of White's attitude to and understanding of his father, written perhaps a decade after his passing. Kathleen's Song,16 in that same 1981 collection called The Witness of Pebbles, tells us much more about a woman who coaxed him "toward exultancy." She was the "goodwife." She was "Earth's God's-penny." Perhaps the following lines, the first ones in the poem, place his life with his mother in the most accurate perspective:
Life is her cause and love her sole crusade.
She extols, proclaims, upholds them, knows them dear,
Divine and indivisible. Many chilled with fear
Find her warming fire.

White's mother was a woman who held the "key to recesses of hearts." She had an energy and joy that had an immeasurable affect on White's psychological and spiritual development. Perhaps it was in this critical relationship that White acquired his sensitivity and innocence, the same "swift joy" and the same "uncunning generosity."

I think it is useful to make one or two points about the poem White wrote about his father, In Memoriam: John Bernard White. Father and son relationships have long been characterized by far fewer words than the mother-son or mother-daughter relationship. White writes:
Father, I am your book, you know me well
Yet said so little of this while you lived.
The mysteries that once held you time has sieved
And memory surrenders you to tell
The words that man and boy may barely say.

This poem was written at some time in White's mid-to-late forties and shows an empathy, a wisdom, an identity with his father, a closeness only achieved, one safely assumes, with the passing of the years. Although the poem tells us little about White's early life in Canada it tells us a great deal about how White came to see these years and his father more than thirty years after he left home and nearly a decade after his father's death.

For all of us, though, our life story is always incomplete, partial, episodic. A man turns to poetry to provide experiential self-continuity. The poetry provides a sort of remobilization of memory in the service of living more effectively. It resurfaces the poet's life and gives a new depth to memory's story. White writes:
I am your inmost essence, your hidden way.
Replication of your heart's deep need;
I voice your silent prayer, retrace your plan
And sorrow for this lonely thing--a man.

The poet composes his life story over and over again, as we all do as we get older. White here is interpreting the reality of his relationship with his father, a reality that became quite a different thing in the light of his experience, in the light of his poetic and contemplative reflection on his life's narrative, his story. He continues:
My soul's map charts your bravest deed,
Bears imprint of your hope and conquered fears
And love. Shamelessly I shed your unspent tears.

I asked Roger once what he thought his father's "bravest deed" might be that his soul was charting. He said it might be the occasion when his father put his foot through the television screen when someone was talking about the Cause. White was impressed that his father could feel so strongly about the Faith. Imagination and critical reflection live in the house of the mind where White composes the definition of his reality, in this poem the reality of his relationship with his father. The friends that his critical reflection and imagination bring home are a source of great illumination. They produce, here, a poem of considerable insight.[17] White continues, as if speaking directly to his father:
Regard your book--you know to Whom addressed
And tell blind reader: is the ending blest?

In the end White is faced with mystery in his relationship with his father. So, too, is it in our own lives. We get a sense here of what it means to be a father, a person. What were his father's "unspent years?" Did White feel, at this juncture, while he wrote the poem, a "homeless thing?" Who knows? In some ways it does not matter. But there is little doubt that we all feel this way from time to time. The meaning of this poem, like all poems, whatever its sound or its structure, remains empty and a non-event to readers unless it touches the receiving mind. The receiving mind must be active in a certain way if a transmutation from a mere set of words on a page into an experience of meaning is to occur. This activity is part technique and part an "inner ringing and singing"[18] as the reader constructs a parallel world to the world constructed by the poet.

In a poem in a 1982 collection, Whitewash, White ponders his years in Belleville and whatever pleasures they offered to him as a growing boy--and it would appear they were for the most part pleasurable. He ponders these happy, cloudless, years in the context of another form of pleasure and ecstasy, that of martyrdom. White seems to be reflecting in this poem, Sweetmeat,19 on his life and the indifference of his society to the religion he joined. He contrasts his life with the experience of a person living in a society which would kill those who took an unorthodox path of belief:
I would welcome contempt
above indifference

In that same 1982 collection, Whitewash, in a poem entitled Lines on Drowning, White refers to the lack of response to one's efforts to teach the Cause in a brilliant piece of analysis: "how tiresome this pride which love nor hope nor irony convinces,/this will that will not will belief." Here was a man speaking from thirty-five years experience in, what for me, is one of his cleverest turns of phrase and one of his most accurate statements of an important area of Bahá'í experience, both in his first twenty-five years of living and in the second twenty-five that was to come.

I will have more to say about White's experience in school in a later chapter but, for now, let me say that for the most part White enjoyed school. He did not enjoy mathematics, metalwork or woodwork. The Catholic sisters were uniformly kind, gentle and pious. They all smelled faintly of disinfectant or witch hazel, a fact which perhaps contributed to their seeming interchangeableness and anonymity.

By 1947, at the age of eighteen, White was in the habit of visiting Kingston, the biggest city on the northeast shore of Lake Ontario. Kingston is at the point where Lake Ontario joins the St. Lawrence River at Thousand Islands. It was a natural attraction for a young man with a curious and adventurous spirit living in what was then the small country town of Belleville. Over the next five years, as the North American Bahá'í community was completing its first temple in Chicago and its second Seven Year Plan, White got to know the small Bahá'í community in Kingston. He also got to know some of the Ottawa Bahá'ís who travelled to Kingston on extension teaching trips. Winnifred Harvey was one such travel teacher. Doug Wilson and Cliff Huxtable were students at Queen's University in Kingston at the time.[20]

From time to time he heard visiting speakers like Ruth Moffatt, Allan Raynor and Margaret and Larry Rowden. Eventually, a small Bahá'í community grew up in Belleville: Margeurite Carter, William Connors, Helen Owens, Margaret Mann, Jack Campbell, James McLaughlin and Robert Cretney. These names are, for the most part, unknown now but, by 1954, a local Assembly was formed in Belleville. That same year Roger married Helen Owens.

In 1954 Roger also started working as a freelance court reporter and assistant editor of Hansard in Ottawa. This daily record of the debates in the Canadian House of Commons gave White an invaluable experience which helped him get a job in Vancouver in 1958 with the Supreme Court of British Columbia as a reporter and which helped to continue watering those poetic seeds that would eventually mature twenty to thirty years later in an extensive body of poetry.

There is no doubt, though, that White was a skilled craftsman with words is these early years. John Ward, in his book The Hansard Chronicles, says that White was "acknowledged by his colleagues as one of the finest shorthand writers ever to serve the country. White gave up a promising career as a freelance journalist to join Hansard where he was for many years resident..."[21]

The decade from 1947 to 1957 saw the beginning of White's poetic output. White produced a chapbook Summer Window in 1947. The poetry in this booklet may have gone back to earlier years. Further study of the White archive in Toronto and Haifa will tell future scholars more about the beginnings of White's poetic life in the 1940s. Job, marriage and the demands of early adulthood kept him busy. The total quantity of poetry that has come down to us from these years, at least that poetry now readily available for popular consumption and not requiring the resources of an archive, is slim. This, as yet unpublished, poem "When the Gods Forsake Us,"[22] provides a retrospective look at White's early-to-mid adolescence, the years to the end of WWII. Written five years before his passing, this poem gives us a window into his early youth in Toronto: age 14:

Inexplicably disconsolate
I reach for a forbidden cigarette
out of a perverse loyalty to Paul Henreid
who sanctified the ritual of lighting up
back in the days when the Surgeon General
minded his own business.

Most of my significant decisions
were made during matinees
at the Alhambra, Danforth Avenue, 1943.
Fay Wray would have given that ape the slip
if she'd known how much I loved her,
ageless in reruns.
I'd never have torn her dress.

The casual slouch of Bogart's fedora,
Cary Grant's insouciant grin--
the mirror yawned at my worshipful impersonations.

No one warned me that the immortals would die.
Have I mentioned that I'm still in mourning
for Leslie Howard and Vivien Leigh?

It's 1987 and friends in their 70s
who've forgotten Sonny Tufts
complain that they're up
several times in the night
and hint at other dark indignities.

I am inconsolable.
Do not come to me
saying in the clipped tones of Bette Davis,
What do you mean? Whatever do you mean?

For the years of his late adolescence and the earliest years of his adult life(1946-1952) we must also remain, scantily informed. All we get from these early years is the occasional poetic revelation into some aspect of the impressionable years of a Canadian youth and young adult who became, in the last dozen years of his adult life, a poet who defined and described the experience of Bahá'ís in the last half of the twentieth century, perhaps better than anyone else. The identity that White conferred on his readers was not so much his own, although he does give us a human and humorous taste, but theirs.

It did not concern White that he left little information about his life, any direct autobiographical detail, for to him the poet was not to be confused with the poem. If the reader wanted to know about the poet, about Roger White, White advised readers to study his poetry. Therein, he said, was his life. Although not explicitly autobiographical, poem after poem tells much about White. His autobiographical poetry is not, as Ann Goetting[23] argues in her study of the autobiographical process, some simple repetition of the past. His poetry is the presence of a spirit in a world now gone, the creation of a particular view of reality, reconstructed truth, fact and experience. This truth, this reality, is not always self-evident or even subject to proof. It often adds an element of seasoned consciousness to some original experience, an interpretation of life's processes. It was an expression of how White dealt with the life around him.

Combining history and biography, much of White's poetry is a type of sociological imagination as C.Wright Mills described it back in 1959.[24] This imagination escapes the merely personal by surrenduring to the features of life's bigger picture; it escapes personality because the poet is only a medium, a vehicle, a vessel, a catalyst in the process of creation. This forces the critic to direct his attention to the poems not to the poet. T.S. Eliot called this the "impersonal theory of poetry"[25] and Goethe said it was part of the poet standing "above art and the object"[26] so as to utilize art and its many forms for his own purpose and deal with it in his own manner.

With Proust, White would have concurred that "in reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without the book, he would never have preconceived in himself."[27] With Ortega y Gasset and the poet Wallace Stevens White saw himself as the poet of himself,[28] but he also provided a view, a philosophy of life.[29] It remained the task of his readers' to find themselves in his poetry. White was conscious, as we all are, of the incomplete, episodic nature of daily life. Poetry provided a source of experiential self-continuity; it remobilized his memory in the service of the living, of living more effectively; it provided freshness of surface and depth of meaning and retention.[30] It does the same for White's readers who travel with him in his poetry. For what readers see depends on what they bring to White's poetry and what they read depends on what they bring to the reading. Readers, in other words, create their own poetry through their own interpretive strategies "as members of a larger community."[31] The interpretation of a poem is not so much the art of construing but the art of constructing. Poetry can penetrate deep into people's personal lives because in giving form to their worlds, it articulates their nature, sensibility, energy, passion, their life of feeling. For many White's poetry did just that.

Before we turn to White's poetry and the specific books of poetry that he had published, though, we will examine in the essay which follows his second twenty-five years: 1954-1979. It is difficult to draw on what some literary historians see as a developmental model for my study of White. Early, Middle and Late can be comfortably applied to White, but I'm not sure how useful such a division into periods of writing is in White's case.[32] Like the theories of developmental psychology: Freud, Erikson, Piaget, et al., whose application is complex and still unfolding their relevance to students in the field of psychology, this chronological development model applied to White's poetry could be a study in itself. For my purposes, though, these three stages simply provide an outline, a broad chronological framework, within which White's poetry can easily fall. How useful this model is for showing White's development as a poet is difficult to assess. This model may be more useful to us as we try to account for his growth as a poet than it is to describe his life's narrative since information here is somewhat thin-on-the-ground. And, as I have pointed out above, that is the way White wanted it. I leave the analysis of this question of development to future literary critics and lovers of White's verse. And so, we now turn to this Middle period of his writing.

[1] See William Pritchard for his outline of the stages in the career of a poet in Lives of the Modern Poets, Faber and Faber, London, 1980, p.219.
[2] Roger White, Summer Window, Cherry Press, Belleville, Ontario, 1947.
3 Roger White, Sketches of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Haifa Publications, 1973.
4 Roger White, Old Songs/New Songs: 1947-1977, Haifa Publications, 1978.
5 Roger White, "Price-White Correspondence: 1981-1993," Unpublished.
6 William Pritchard, Lives of the Modern Poets, Faber and Faber, London, 1980, p.207.
William Pritchard, Lives of the Modern Poets, Faber and Faber, London, 1980, p.165.
[8] Robert Lowell, "On Skunk Hour," in Collected Poems, p.227.
[9] This is not to say that popular culture had no influence on White's literary and artisitic development as several of his poems about the influence of movies indicate.
[10] J. Derrida in Interpretive Biography, N.K. Denzin, Sage Publications, London, 1989, p.19.
[11] Richard Kearney, The Wake of Imagination: Toward a Postmodern Culture, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1988, p.396.
[12] Chapter entitled "A Galaxy of Characters."
[13] Aaron Copland writes of a similar experience listeners have with music in On the Nature of Musical Experience, editors, B. Reimer and J. Wright, University Press of Colorado, 1992, p.65.
[14] First Published in Old Songs/New Songs, pp.19-21.
[15] Roger White, Old Songs/New Songs, pp.7-8
10 Roger White, The Witness of Pebbles, George Ronald, Oxford, 1981, p.148.
[17] J.A. McLean, Dimensions in Spirituality, George Roanald, Oxford, 1994, p.178.
[18] Boethius, De Institutione Musica, trans. Calvin Bower, ed. Claude Palisca, Yale UP, New Haven, 1989, p.15.
19 Roger White, Whitewash, p.32.
[20] Bahá'í World Centre, "Biographical Notes on Roger White," 1991, p.1.
[21] John Ward, The Hansard Chronicles: A Celebration of the First Hundred Years of Hansard in Canada's Parliament, Deneau and Greenberg, Ottawa, 1980, p.173.
[22] Roger White, Unpublished Poem, Sent to the Author.
[23] Ann Goetting, editor, Individual Voices: Collective Visions: Fifty Years of Women in Sociology, Temple UP, Philadelphia, 1995, pp.13-15.
[24] C.W. Mills, The Sociological Imagination, 1959.
[25] T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent."
[26] Randall Jarrell, "The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens," The Yale Review, Spring 1955.
[27] Marcel Proust, The Past Recaptured.
[28] Ortega y Gasset, History as a System and Other Essays Toward a Philosophy of History, 1961, p.203.
[29] Julian Symons in The Achievement of Wallace Stevens, editors, A. Brown and R. Haller, Lippincott Co., NY, 1962, p.120 states us that Stevens provided his readers with an objective view of himself but not of life, no philosophy of life. Readers of White, it seems to me, get both.
[30] See Wendy J. Weiner and George C. Rosenwald, "A Moment's Monument: The Psychology of Keeping a Diary," The Narrative Study of Lives, editors, R. Josselson and A. Lieblich, Sage Publications, London, 1993, p.56.
[31] Reed Way Dasenbrock, "Do We Write the Text We Read?" Falling Into Theory: Conflicitng Views On Reading Literature, second edition, David H. Richter, editor, Bedford, NY, 2000, p.279.
[32] See Julian Symons, "A Short View of Wallace Stevens," Life and Letters Today, London, September 1940. Symons states the usefulness of applying a developmental model to the poetry of Yeats and Eliot but not to Wallace Stevens.
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