The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography 
by Hilary Holladay.
Doubleday, 416 pp., £25, November 2020, 978 0 385 54150 3
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Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution 
by Adrienne Rich.
Norton, 345 pp., £13.99, May, 978 0 393 54142 7
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Adrienne Rich’s​ poems speak so strongly to the current zeitgeist (dating from, say, the Occupy movement through #MeToo to Black Lives Matter) that it’s astounding – no, instructive – to realise they were written twenty, forty, fifty years ago:

at your table
telephone rings
every four minutes
talk
of terrible things
the papers bringing
no good news
                                (‘New York’)

False history gets made all day, any day,
the truth of the new is never on the news
                                (‘Turning the Wheel’)

There is a cop who is both prowler and father …
You have to confess
to him, you are guilty of the crime
of having been forced
                                (‘Rape’)

Suppose you want to write
of a woman braiding
another woman’s hair –
straight down, or with beads and shells
in three-strand plaits or corn-rows –
you had better know the thickness
the length the pattern
why she decides to braid her hair
how it is done to her
what country it happens in
what else happens in that country
                                (‘North American Time’)

Her essays employ an argot that contemporary opinion pieces might have cribbed from: ‘The creative energy of patriarchy is fast running out; what remains is its self-generating energy for destruction.’ ‘“Identity” became a synonym for “safe space” in which alikeness rather than difference could be explored.’ Elizabeth’s Bishop’s poem about Billie Holiday, ‘Songs for a Coloured Singer’, is called out for appropriation in 1983:

This is a white woman’s attempt – respectful, I believe – to speak through a Black woman’s voice. A risky undertaking, and it betrays the failures and clumsiness of such a position. The personae we adopt, the degree to which we use lives already ripped off and violated by our own culture, the problem of racist stereotyping in every white head, the issue of the writer’s power, right, obligation to speak for others denied a voice, or the writer’s duty to shut up at times or at least to make room for those who can speak with more immediate authority.

Was it Rich who first interrogated the nefarious word ‘masters’ in the 1990s (‘Not How to Write Poetry, But Wherefore’) or our reverence for ‘genius’ in the early 1970s (‘The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at Last as a Sexual Message’)? She seems to have anticipated ‘self-care’: ‘I dreamed I called you on the telephone/to say: Be kinder to yourself.’

It has all come to sound trite and overworked. But the woman who helped put this language into circulation published her first full-length collection of poems in 1951. By the time she died in 2012, Rich had published 24 books of poetry and was a public figure, progressive intellectual and activist with a more passionate following than most American poets can ever dream of. Hilary Holladay’s biography – the first – is pleasingly economical, condensing more than eight decades into four hundred pages. It is admiring and sympathetic, but occasionally cocks an eyebrow. Its timing couldn’t be better, as the full range of Rich’s concerns – which expanded over the decades, from pacifism and racial justice in the 1960s to feminism and queerness in the 1970s to antisemitism and Marxism in the 1980s – has dominated public discourse in the wake of the Trump years. It is also a study in the professionalisation of American poetry, and its imbrication with the meritocracy, since the mid-20th century.

Adrienne Rich was born in 1929, at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where her father, Arnold Rich, was a pathologist and professor. He named her so that she would have the same initials as him, and strove from the start to fashion her into a genius. She was homeschooled in early childhood, taught classical piano by her conservatory-trained mother and given canonical English poems to write out by hand at the age of five. Her own early poems were published, at her father’s instigation, when she was six. Rich’s work is thick with references to her upbringing by a passionate tyrant who blurred the boundaries between their identities. She remembered herself as an ‘angry child’, though an obedient one.

Arnold Rich was the ‘spoiled darling’ of a Jewish immigrant from Austria-Hungary (né Reich) who married the Mississippi-born daughter of a Bavarian immigrant. They were prosperous and assimilated Southerners in Birmingham, Alabama and instilled in Arnold a repulsion towards his Jewish origins, which would cause a rift with his daughter when Adrienne chose to marry another man with the initial A: Alfred Conrad (formerly Cohen) in 1953. In 1925, Arnold married the Episcopal Helen Jones from Atlanta and designed a long-sleeved black crêpe dress for her to wear as a uniform. Helen gave up her concert career, although she continued to play the piano every day. Holladay sees an unspoken contest that Adrienne’s mother lost from the start: ‘Looking from one to the other, the young Adrienne threw her lot with Arnold Rich, the more powerful parent, the one with the study filled with books and antique maps, a microscope and stacks of manuscript pages.’ Her relationship with her sister, Cynthia (the ‘beauty’), was distant, even after Cynthia started campaigning for women’s rights and came out as a lesbian. Market competition, injected into the fragile, shallow rooted nuclear family, sowed lifelong division.

In addition to the hothouse home-schooling, European vacations were ‘a mainstay of her childhood … She was comfortable travelling first class and dressing in a formal gown for dinner aboard an opulent ocean liner.’ Such luxury was not an end in itself: edification was. When as a teenager Rich attended a private school, ‘her favourite feeling was “that of having accomplished something”’; her motto, ‘Noblesse Oblige’. She arrived at Radcliffe College, an adjunct to Harvard, in 1947. ‘Her dormmates saw a self-possessed and proper young woman who spoke with precise diction and wore heels to class, while the other girls wore loafers or saddle shoes.’ She was finally in her element: ‘Like Arnold Rich, she worshipped at the altar of intellectual and creative accomplishment.’ Nor was she immune to the prestige of assortative mating: the 1951 Radcliffe yearbook stated that ‘after graduation the “typical” Radcliffe girl would like to combine marriage with a career and raise a family of three or four children. As a housewife, she would enjoy cooking, but would prefer not to do her own ironing.’ Rich herself, Holladay tells us, wanted ‘four children, three boys and a girl as her youngest’.

This intensity of aspiration will be familiar to readers of biographies of Rich’s contemporaries – Sylvia Plath, say, or Susan Sontag or Helen Frankenthaler. But the cascade of good fortune that poured down on the ambitious young Adrienne unsettles even her biographer: ‘Had she asked a judge or committee for the moon in those days, who knows but she wouldn’t have come home to find a cratered chunk of it glowing on the street in front of her apartment.’ Maybe ‘good fortune’ is too much of a mystification. It was the hustle of the professors at Harvard and Radcliffe that set her on the path to early success, particularly her mentor, Ted Morrison, who got her invited to dinner with Robert Frost (Rich charmed him) and who groomed her for the Yale Younger Poets competition judged by Auden, which she won in 1950. The prize put her on the map. A Change of World, published the following year, garnered respectful reviews; she shone at public readings; she bantered with Wallace Stevens and Vladimir Nabokov at parties; when she continued her studies at Oxford, she was funded by a blessed ‘St Gugg’ fellowship. While in England she made influential friends such as Donald Hall and the Plath-Hugheses, and published in the New Yorker. Katharine White, the poetry editor, soon offered her a first-read agreement.

In the meantime, Rich had broken off her engagement to Sumner Powell, a Wasp Harvard boy, and fallen in love with the Jewish Alfred Cohen, also of Harvard. She married him in Cambridge, where he lived and taught in the economics department. ‘No family members from either side were present.’ She settled down to her roles as a faculty wife, mother of three boys and general ornament to the poetry world for the next dozen or so years, later writing that this was a time in which ‘a sense of drift’ and of ‘losing touch with whoever I had been’ filled her with resentment. ‘If there were doubts, if there were periods of null depression or active despairing, these could only mean that I was ungrateful, insatiable, perhaps a monster.’

Rich’sworldly success illustrates the clubbable hortus conclusus that was – and still is – the Ivy League. A Change of World isn’t one of the great First Books (just compare it to Bishop’s North & South, published only five years earlier, though Bishop was almost twenty years older). Even the anthology favourite ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’, ‘lucid and well made’ as it is (Holladay’s is not a critical biography and her glosses are brief) is as schematic as it gets: here is the put-upon wife, the autocratic husband, the tiger and wedding ring and ‘feminine art’ of needlework encumbered with symbolism. True, Rich wasn’t the only poet parroting Frost and Yeats and Auden in those days. Nearly all the young poets of the age strove for formal competence: Lowell, Merwin, Plath and even Frank O’Hara wrote reams of quatrains and sonnets before breaking out into free verse, seemingly all at once, as if to the Muses’ baton. During his tenure as judge of the Yale Younger Poets prize, Auden was frequently unenthused; in 1947, he awarded it to his former student Joan Murray, who had died five years earlier. Submissions in 1955 were so dismal that he privately asked John Ashbery and O’Hara for manuscripts (Ashbery’s Some Trees was the winner).

Rich and her fans have bristled at some of the condescending praise her early books received. Auden’s introduction to A Change of World (1951) characterised her poems as ‘neatly and modestly dressed’; reviewing her second book, The Diamond Cutters (1955), Randall Jarrell called her a ‘princess in a fairy tale’. This period provides the foil to what came later – Rich’s radicalisation – and thus serves the larger allegory of her life: the princess wakes up and spits out the poisoned apple, the meritocratic reward of ‘excellence’. She engaged in self-criticism of her own early work (‘formalism was part of the strategy – like asbestos gloves, it allowed me to handle materials I couldn’t pick up barehanded’) and railed in later years against the ‘tokenism’ that had singled her out.

But it was not only men who aided Rich and wanted to see her succeed. Holladay lays out the queasy contradictions:

Although Rich later complained that she had been made a token in the male literary establishment, she could have pointed out that the publication of her second book was largely a women’s project. Without White’s name providing Rich with an entrée, who knows but that Harper might have rejected the book, just as Harcourt Brace, Knopf and Yale had done.

It was also hard to rail against tokenism without insulting any woman who had triumphed over adversity – Alice Walker or Audre Lorde, for instance. In 1974, when the three of them were among the nominees for the National Book Award, Rich hatched a scheme to denounce this ‘patriarchal sham’:

If one of them was awarded the prize, the winner would read a statement that rebuked the male-dominated awards hierarchy while championing the cause of all women. She implied or perhaps stated outright that of the three of them, she was the most likely to win because she was white. On the chance that one of the others did win, she was asking Walker and Lorde to spurn the honour and the one thousand dollar prize – income they may have wanted to keep … Seen in this light, her high-minded proposal carried with it a large dose of presumption: first, that she would win; second, that a joint statement from all of them was necessary; and third, that they should imperil their professional standing to validate a point she wanted to make.

You have to be accustomed to winning prizes, and quite certain of your place in the pecking order, to grandstand like this. At any rate, ‘there was another white woman lurking at the edge of these conversations: 22-year-old Eleanor Lerman, a native of the Bronx and the true outlier in the group. Unlike the other three, she was poor and lacked a college education; she spent her days making harpsichord kits in the Village and her evenings cruising gay bars.’ Lerman ‘still gets angry thinking about the pressure they put on her’. All three called her ‘in order of importance’ to persuade her to participate. ‘Who are these elitist, educated, fancy-schmancy women to tell me what my situation is? Men were not my problem. Money was, work was.’

I wonder if poetry wasn’t itself a token in the Harvard milieu. When Rich complained about being a faculty wife, her reputation subordinated to her husband’s, it might have had something to do with their respective fields. Conrad pioneered ‘cliometrics’, ‘the application of economic theory and quantitative methods to the study of history’. Rich’s rejected fiancé, Sumner Powell – we don’t know why she broke off the engagement, but he was shattered – went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in history. Cynthia Rich, who also ended up at Radcliffe, married and divorced a man who won a Nobel Prize in physics. Poetry must have seemed bijou in such company, though Rich continued to publish, to collect prizes, to accept invitations to read and lecture. Friendships with contemporaries outside the institution – Hughes, Lowell, Denise Levertov – encouraged a more confessional mode, resulting in her first controversial collection, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, in 1963. Among Rich’s papers at Harvard is a letter from her father – copied in her mother’s hand – damning the book: ‘I wouldn’t want to present these “beat”, sordid, irritable and often nasty poems of unrelieved despair to the world as representative of the quality of my mind, heart, character and life.’

When political and aesthetic radicalisation arrived, it was after Rich and Conrad left Harvard; or rather, after Conrad was denied tenure in 1966. They ended up in New York, teaching a more diverse student body at CUNY while Rich also gave workshops at Columbia. The couple became involved in anti-war efforts and other New Left causes, but instead of uniting them, work and activism drove them apart. The most calamitous event of Rich’s life was her husband’s suicide, which occurred shortly after she left him and their sons to take her own small apartment in Manhattan. Under siege at work and in his marriage, and distraught by world events, Conrad drove to Vermont, where the couple owned a house, and shot himself in a nearby meadow. It was 1970. He was 46 years old.

Holladay claims that Rich loved Conrad and tried to support him, but she also admits that ‘Adrienne was a volatile woman who experienced deep depressions and sometimes indulged in screaming fury.’ A portrait emerges of a woman who had broken relationships with her parents and sister, whose comrades-in-arms often fell by the wayside (Lowell, Levertov, Hayden Carruth), who ‘refused to feel obligated to return favours … which could make her seem cold and ungrateful’. Carruth’s wife, Rose Marie, remembered the meadow where Conrad killed himself as the site of an infamous picnic, where an increasingly abrasive Rich announced that ‘she planned to give away her pots and pans’ and ‘do a lot less cooking’.

After Conrad’s death, Rich – whose syllabus at Columbia contained no female writers, who corresponded with Hughes but not Plath, who slept with Lowell under Elizabeth Hardwick’s nose, who ‘didn’t particularly like women’ – made herself over entirely as a radical feminist and lesbian, structuring her work and friendships, with Robin Morgan, Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Mary Daly, among other luminaries of the Second Wave, around the precepts of women’s liberation. Her style was now one of ‘unapologetic, even flagrant, raggedness – a move towards fulfilling her long-ago desire to write poems that were “messily passionate and grand”’. She had found an audience beyond the Ivy League. This new poetry was hortatory and repetitious, with a distinct air of political oration:

If you have not confessed
the damage

if you have not recognised
the Mother of reparations

if you have not come to terms
with the women in the mirror

if you have not come to terms
with the inscription

the terms of the ordeal
the discipline the verdict

if still you are on your way
still She awaits your coming

                                (‘From an Old House in America’)

The collections that mapped Rich’s personal and ideological trajectory during the tumultuous aftermath of Conrad’s suicide include The Will to Change (1971), Diving into the Wreck (1973) and The Dream of a Common Language (1978). Stylistically Rich broke no new ground: when she abandoned formalism, she found her footing in the confessionalism of Lowell’s Life Studies and Plath’s Ariel – which, as Holladay points out, ‘had driven a stake in the heart of New Criticism’. But her work was now getting exhilarated responses, such as Margaret Atwood’s review of Diving into the Wreck, with its twist on Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry:

When I first heard the author read from it, I felt as though the top of my head was being attacked, sometimes with an ice pick, sometimes with a blunter instrument: a hatchet or a hammer. The predominant emotions seemed to be anger and hatred, and these are certainly present; but when I read the poems later, they evoked a far more subtle reaction. Diving into the Wreck is one of those rare books that forces you to decide not just what you think about it; but what you think about yourself.

Atwood wasn’t alone. Elaine Showalter, Catharine MacKinnon, Robin Morgan and Susan Griffin were among her admirers. Reporting on the crowd that descended on a women’s bookstore when Rich gave a reading in New York, Holladay says that she ‘was welcomed as a sort of messiah’.

Overall, however, the verdict was mixed and would remain so throughout her career. Holladay refers to an ‘enigmatic’ review by Rosemary Tonks, but there’s nothing enigmatic about it: it is the frank confrontation of a poet of the Nerves with a poet of the Will: ‘In Miss Rich’s work, the moral proportions are valid, the protagonists are sane, responsible persons, and the themes are moving on their courses. Why is it then that we are still waiting for the poetry?’ Reading the poems, Tonks suggests, we are given ‘the illusion, at moments, of having gained an objective picture of events, even of our own thoughts’:

This is well done, so that we really believe while we are reading it that it is how thoughts behave. In this instance the idiom has justified its impersonal quality by an ability to produce convincing objective effects. It is the clean diction used by all good reporters (the method of Tolstoy when he is reporting), and it is insidious because of its invisibility.

But what really puzzles Tonks is Rich’s fixation on secondhand suffering. She describes the milieu of the poems as ‘living a life very close to the life of newspapers; Manhattan is a living newspaper’ – a brilliant observation – and marvels at the mind’s ‘intellectual toil of taking on emotions not its own … Tears of rage can come to our eyes in the street, but usually, if we are scrupulously truthful, from less abstract causes.’ She’s right: Rich’s poetry is overwhelmingly one of sirens heard in the night, cataclysm streamed from the radio. ‘I find myself in tears,’ she writes in ‘Merced’. And then:

I think of Norman Morrison
the Buddhists of Saigon
the black teacher last week
who put himself to death
to waken guilt in hearts
too numb to get the message
in a world masculinity made.

It’s this that makes her so relevant today – when otherwise comfortable people live in thrall to newsfeeds and phone alerts. Rich’s Collected Poems is a century’s compendium of emergencies, telegraphed in proper nouns: Mississippi, Harpers Ferry, Jaurez, Catalonia, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Central America, Lebanon; ‘Appomattox/Wounded Knee, Los Alamos, Selma’; ‘Beirut.Baghdad.Sarajevo.Bethlehem.Kabul. Not of course here.’

Helen Vendler wrote dismayed reviews of Rich’s work, excoriating the stereotypes, the bombast: ‘One longs, reading Rich’s A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, for the poem to take an unexpected byway, to reverse itself, to mock itself, to question its own premise, to allow itself, in short, some aesthetic independence. In Rich, the moral will is given a dominating role that squeezes the lifeblood out of the imagination.’ But one doesn’t read Rich for la comédie humaine, stylistic sprezzatura, or pleasure of any sort – unless one takes pleasure in moral indignation, which Lionel Trilling once claimed was a distinct feature of the American middle-class liberal. Yet Holladay reveals the extent to which actual, first-hand suffering also informed Rich’s aesthetics: diagnosed in her early twenties with rheumatoid arthritis, she struggled with bouts of debilitating pain and underwent successive surgeries, including one to screw a metal ‘halo’ to her skull to relieve pressure on the spinal cord. She suggests that Plath’s unkind description of Rich in her twenties – ‘little, round & stumpy’ might be explained by the steroids Rich took for her condition. It was surely a blow to her pride: ‘Once, when Cynthia asked her about the affliction, Adrienne responded by screaming at her never to bring up the subject again. The disease was a sign of weakness she could not bear to discuss with her sister.’

The poet of the Will finds herself a formidable figure: she provides her own sustenance, leaving others feeling that they aren’t needed. Some of Rich’s most striking iconography bears out this sense of lonely heroism: there’s ‘Diving into the Wreck’, in which a solitary woman descends into the ocean to explore ‘the damage that was done’ and splits into two merpeople: ‘I am she: I am he.’ There’s ‘Meditations for a Savage Child’, which identifies with the isolation of the speech-deprived feral boy Victor of Aveyron. And, of course, there are her well-known poems on Marie Curie – bombarded with deadly radiation from the experiments that would make her name – and on the pioneering astronomer Caroline Herschel. Rich returned very often to images of stars and outer space and radiant – or irradiated – bodies, as in her twist on Pascal’s famous pensée: ‘I love the infinity of these silent spaces/Darkblue shot with deathrays but only a short distance.’ Or: ‘All night dreaming of a body/space weighs on differently from mine’.

Small wonder, then, that what brought Rich to her knees – her doomed love affair with her psychoanalyst, Lilly Engler, in 1974 – holds such fascination:

She found in Engler the deeply attentive partner she had craved for so long. No matter that her desire for her therapist was a classic case of transference; no matter that Engler was a mother and father figure wrapped into one. She was Jewish, Viennese, well educated, and well travelled – a reader of literature, a knowledgeable lover of classical music and a revered psychiatrist with a sophisticated clientele.

Engler, more than a decade older than Rich, had also been Susan Sontag’s lover and was an insider in the Manhattan cultural elite. This was Rich’s first same-sex affair, and it marked a swift and wholehearted transition from the ‘hopelessly heterosexual’ woman who ‘craved an intellectual man’ to the committed radical – and for a time, separatist – feminist.

But it couldn’t last. Engler was closeted; in the 1970s, her career depended on it. Nor was a doctor-patient relationship a solid ground on which to build. In less than a year, they had separated. Rich wrote ‘Twenty-One Love Poems’ to commemorate their romance; by the time it appeared in The Dream of a Common Language, Rich had entered into a partnership with the Jamaican-born writer Michelle Cliff and for a long time, everyone assumed it was for her.

During this period​ , Rich also wrote her groundbreaking study of ‘the institution of motherhood’, Of Woman Born, a classic text in Women’s Studies. Its reissue poses something of a challenge: its core insight – that motherhood is a social institution not entirely ‘natural’ – has been so thoroughly absorbed that the experience of reading it is a bit déjà-lit. Meanwhile its language, like most sociological or political tracts tied to their era, can be awkward, tired and strewn with jargon: ‘To have borne and reared a child is to have done that thing which patriarchy joins with physiology to render into the definition of femaleness’; becoming primary caregivers of young children ‘would be the most revolutionary priority that any male group could set itself’. Two introductions, one by a white woman and one by a woman of colour, vouch for the book’s continuing relevance despite a blind spot here and there. Eula Biss’s foreword can’t help but backslide into the sentimentality from which Rich tried so mightily to extract her subject: ‘“You’re a life worker,” my child recently said to me.’ It’s difficult to purge the amour propre from motherhood and maximalise its revolutionary potential. Arguably, a woman of iron will could do it.

After the turmoil of the mid-1970s, Rich’s life settled down. She and Cliff left New York – first for the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts, then Santa Cruz, to ameliorate the arthritis. She led the life of a public intellectual, teaching at Stanford and lecturing all over the world. Declaring that she ‘no longer felt compelled to put her opposition to the oppression of women at the centre of her ideology’, she renewed her attention to other aspects of her identity – her Marxism, her Jewishness, and even her Southernness. ‘Sometimes I feel I have seen too long from too many disconnected angles,’ she wrote in 1982: ‘white, Jewish, antisemite, racist, anti-racist, once-married, lesbian, middle-class, feminist, exmatriate Southerner, split at the root – that I will never bring them whole.’

Is there a moral here about the futility of self-willed ‘identity’? Or is it a cautionary tale about the religion of achievement? Was Rich afraid that her deepest identity, that of a poet, would vanish without endless revolution? (Remember she was only six when her father published her first poems.) Whatever the case, a stable identity eluded her. That didn’t deter her from creating a poetic record that amounts to more than a thousand printed pages. Her admirers see a woman who stood up to authority, lived by her principles and modelled resistance to racism, misogyny, ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, militarism, antisemitism, and class privilege – they won’t be deterred by Holladay’s revelations of interpersonal difficulties. When Lowell died, she wrote to Carruth that ‘his death left me feeling virtually nothing at all’ – though they had been lovers only ten years earlier. Even her relationship with Cliff was fraught with power struggles and substance abuse. They endured until Rich’s death from complications of rheumatoid arthritis in 2012, aged 82. Cliff followed in 2016, aged 69: ‘Alcoholic hepatitis and chronic alcohol abuse were identified as conditions leading to the cause of her death.’

Animus was Rich’s muse. While many were struck by her courage in rejecting the National Medal for the Arts in 1997, it was the culmination of a series of highhanded refusals: in 1977 when Loyola College of Maryland offered her an honorary doctorate, she copied her letter of refusal to the Baltimore Sun. Honorary degrees, she claimed, were a ‘ritual of tokenism’. The same year, she refused to write letters of recommendation for the Guggenheim, and instead wrote to the foundation condemning its discriminatory criteria. As she had been a recipient not once but twice, this repudiation was aimed partly at her own earlier self, the driven ingénue and Harvard wife, who used the ‘St Gugg’ largesse to fund her Oxford education and then to go to the Netherlands (a rejuvenating sojourn part funded by a concomitant spousal award to Conrad). ‘She had made a Talmud out of her life,’ Holladay suggests, ‘the multiple meanings of which demanded endless study, debate, and interpretation.’ But the image that sticks with me is of Adrienne Rich at home in Santa Cruz, recently liberated from the metal halo, tending to a collection of cacti.

Listen to Seamus Perry and Mark Ford discuss Adrienne Rich on the LRB Podcast.

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