Original Criticism

Juliana Chang: On "Ming the Merciless"

In "Ming the Merciless," Hapedorn figures home as space of feminine desire; here the female speaker is positioned not as object but subject of epistemophilic desire. . . . Like the images of U.S. popular culture in "Filipino Boogie, Ming, as popular representation of "Asia," is consumable and incorporable specularity. If we are attracted to what we desire to know, then the speaker's desire is to comprehend Ming's power and otherworldliness. The inhumanity of the racialized image of the Asian has been historically critiqued in Asian American Studies. However, it is precisely those characteristics that make Ming beyond human--"King of the lionmen," "flying angel," "pterodactyl"--that attract the speaker. The speaker's invitations of this public image into interior space represent the process of psychical internalization; rather than identification or dis-identification, the speaker articulates her desire as constituted by this image. She desires the internalization of what is apparently exterior, foreign, and unknown; yet at the same time imagined to be intimately known, a representation of "Asia" and former home.

As in 'Tenement Lover," the interior space of the house represents the space of feminine sexuality. Hagedorn disrupts the feminized image of interior as haven or safety with the potentially dangerous and stimulating "hot water" of her desire. In contrast to the misrecognitions of sight in the monologue, this poem proposes recognition between the lovers as taking place through touch, through the burning and fluid sensation of "hot water." "Hot water" is evidence of what is considered unknowable and visually unprovable: feminine desire. Unlike the visual proof of masculine desire, the erect penis, feminine desire is considered invisible and unknowable. In this poem knowledge is equated not with visuality but with touch; visuality, as in the monologue, is deprivileged as site of knowledge so as to allow for knowledges based on apprehension by senses other than sight, such as touch and sound. At the same time, the poem comprehends the power of the visual, as the speaker's seductive invitation to "come dancing in my tube" refers to the "tube" as both the vagina as feminine sex organ and as television, conjoining the speaker's desire with U.S. mass culture. Rather than simply critiquing mass culture, a vehicle for popular fantasy, the speaker cites its power in order to re-articulate an already mediated desire. She positions herself not as separate from, but as radically embodying the technological machine that would produce and contain Ming as demonized image and herself as passive spectator. The cyborgan body of the Asian diasporic female is proposed as intervening in the gap or distance between image and spectator, interior and exterior, subject and object, Asian American and "Asia."

Hagedorn unsettles the gendered constructions of home, nation and body as sites of interiority, coherence, and safety, showing how these sites are configured and divided by violence and erotic desire, both "internal" and "external." Evoking the surplus meanings suggested by these sites of fantasy, memory, and desire, Hagedorn proposes new gendered and postcolonial epistemologies of interior and exterior, domestic and national, location and dislocation, enabling new formulations of Asian diasporic desire and knowledge.

Jaime Brunton: On "Night, Death, Mississippi"

Robert Hayden's "Night, Death, Mississippi" (1966) figures the rural, white, Southern family it depicts as a space of complicity and indoctrination in racism and racist violence. Through the use of characters that are vocal, vivid, and, at the same time archetypal, Hayden creates a familial landscape that is, disturbingly, both nightmarish and believable. This effect is achieved by way of an unsettling proximity to the poem's Klansman storyteller, whose sexualized descriptions of participation in the castration of a black man reveal how racist violence is a community-building act, structuring and strengthening both homosocial and familial bonds.

As Thierry Ramais (MAPS) notes, the poem begins by positioning the reader in close proximity to the perpetrator of brutal KKK violence. Listening with him in the dark, close enough to smell the "reek" of his laughter, "His questions," as Ramais points out, become "our questions." The poem begins with the voice of an outside narrator, and quickly switches to the voice of the Klansman and back again. The lack of quotation marks or italics suggests a kind of channeling of this old man by the narrator:

 

A quavering cry. A screech-owl?

Or one of them?

The old man in his reek

and gauntness laughs -- (l. 1-4)

 

Rather than passively ingesting a story at two removes from the action, we are forced into a conversation of sorts with the Klansman -- one we can neither escape from nor contribute to. One effect of this proximity is to heighten the textual violence; because the story is channeled rather than quoted, the violence is re-enacted by the reader as performer. Reading the poem aloud, one inhabits a schizophrenic space, alternating between the voice of the Klansman and the unobtrusive voice of an unidentified narrator, with only a change in diction to indicate a shift in speaker. This effect is disorienting and troubling, for it requires an uncomfortable degree of identification with the old man. How can any reader inhabit such a distasteful character? How do we know how to read in his voice?

Hayden's occasional lyricism and depictions of familiar emotions and desires make this unnerving identification with the Klansman possible. The character longs to be part of a community; he desires a ritualistic mode of interaction with other men and with his son. All of these desires though, however lyrically rendered, are shot through with, and enabled by, both racism and unchecked sadism. The old man's tale begins with an expression of longing for the past, which he could relive "if I was well again." This longing is specifically for male bonding ("with Boy and the rest") as well as for what he perceives as the natural beauty of the ritual, which he recalls lyrically as "White robes like moonlight / In the sweetgum dark." This aestheticized image is followed immediately by his description of castrating a victim who is "squealing bloody Jesus / as we cut it off" -- making explicit the "cry" the speaker hears in line one. The speaker then takes the entire fifth stanza to savor those cries, reliving his sadistic pleasure -- in a most Sadean way -- through the act of storytelling. The final stanza of section one links this violent act back to the bonding ritual, telling how "Boy" has, through his participation, "earned him a bottle" that he and the old man will share as a way to strengthen their bond.

The first stanza of section two is more straightforward than lyrical in its recounting of the violence, following a subject-verb-object syntax structure to indicate a frenzied pace, both of the actual event and the old man's speech. The stanzas of this section are separated by italicized lines that one might read (as Ramais does) as "incantations" from the victim. Whereas this voice calls out to Jesus for help, the perpetrator, says Ramais, uses "Christ" as a "swear" or "interjection" in his fantasy re-telling. This interjection points to the specifically pleasurable nature of the brutality:

 

Christ, it was better

than hunting bear

which don't know why

you want him dead. (l. 30-33)

 

It is an act both premeditated and savored after the fact through its retelling. One imagines the storyteller passing this on to children and grandchildren (as certainly he has passed it on to "Boy"). Indeed, this section of the poem offers us more of a glimpse into the role of the family in the act. Moving from the dark forest of sweetgum to the interior space of the Klansman's home, the narration switches abruptly from the Klansman, to an unidentified (italicized) cry, and then to, presumably, the Klansman's wife:

 

You kids fetch Paw

some water now so's he

can wash that blood

off him, she said. (l. 35-38)

 

The family is the space where such violence is learned and upheld, with both the wife and the Klansman's children playing supporting roles. This theme is doubly emphasized by the names "Paw" and "Boy" -- the archetypal father and son who will pass on this lust for racially based hatred and violence generation after generation. The family does not question the acts of the father; the violent acts of castration and beating, with their overtones of sadistic homoeroticism, are treated as ordinary. Furthermore, insofar as participation in the KKK violence is considered a rite of passage into manhood, racism actually constitutes Boy’s subjectivity. Racial violence is thus normalized and reproduced in this setting, making the family the literal breeding ground for racism. 

The three italicized lines in between each stanza in section two, which do not clearly belong to anyone, function as commentary on the violence, and remove us for a few brief moments from the claustrophobic identification with the Klansman. After the old man's depiction of beating the victim, this disembodied voice cries: "O Jesus burning on the lily cross." Is this the victim? Someone sympathetic to him? We can't be entirely sure. The "Jesus" in this line is joined to “Christ” spoken by the old man in the next line: "Christ, it was better / than hunting bear." The contrast between calling to Jesus for help and using "Christ" as an interjection to indicate extreme pleasure clearly casts judgment on the Klansman. This ability to judge allows the speaker a more comfortable space of identification.

These lines also remind us of a world outside of the space of the racist home. Together they constitute a floating voice out there in the night, with no clear attachment to a community or a family, although one might read into their song-like quality a chorus of voices. Ultimately, the poem asks us to question the desirability of bonds of blood -- both the male homosocial bond created through the spilling of the black man's blood and the bond of the biological nuclear family. Trapped for a time in both of these bonds, we are forced to reckon with desires for attachment and belonging taken to perverse and bloody ends. Insulating oneself in one's community and family, which has traditionally been figured as a benign, apolitical choice, here becomes a grotesque act, and, furthermore, points to the ubiquitous and deep psychological attachments to white racism in the US. These spaces are safe only insofar as they protect and nurture perpetrators of violence, and thus the most desirable space in the poem becomes not the home, but the nebulous outside occupied by the speaker or speakers who interrupt that space.

 

Copyright © 2007 by Jaime Brunton

Thierry Ramais: On "Night, Death, Mississippi"

In "Night, Death, Mississippi", Robert Hayden presents us with a dark, anecdotal account of KKK violence against the African-American community. As the poem starts, we are presented with the description of an old, apparently sick man waiting in his house, listening to the sounds of the outside and hearing the cries and screams of a black person being beaten outside, beyond the woods, by white extremists. Leaving the inside of his house to get a better sense of hearing, he then waits their return, in a mixture of enjoyment and nostalgia of not being able to take part in the "action". In the second part of the poem, we are then presented with the account of the extremist friends/members of family who have come back home, enjoying their sense of power over their obviously helpless victim.

In the beginning of the poem, it is through the ears of the old man that we, readers, have to make sense of the action: "A quavering cry. Screech-owl? / Or one of them?" Like the old man, who obviously belongs to "white trash" ("The old man in his reek and gauntness laughs"),we do not know what these sounds outside mean and it is only later that we, as readers, realize the sounds of beating are what this old man was actually looking for. His questions are thus our questions, but the process of identification takes a sudden different twist when the old man speaks; as we discover the nature of his abject feelings and wishes, we are meant to toss any sympathy away and become spectators of his heartlessness ("A cry? A cry alright") and the extent of his romanticized fanaticism becomes more apparent ("Time was. Time was. / White robes like moonlight / in the sweetgum dark").

What is unusual about this first part of the poem is of course the fact that, unlike many other poem about the topic, we are asked by the poet to perform the difficult exercise to actually adopt the perspective of the persecutors rather than the victims. The African-American is actually, from the very start, presented as "other", as distant, as "one of them", that is, not one of "us". As he describes atrocities performed on one of his former victims, "that one", he makes no effort to humanize his description. The victim is the other, "one of them", "squealing", "quavering" like the present one. Interestingly, however, we are not given a clear description of that old man himself, of the auditors (whose perspective we are invited to adopt), of the family or friendship bonds uniting him to the persecutors coming back from the wood, so that, if the victim retains the form of a distant "concept" for us, we, as readers, still have a difficult time adequately adopting the point-of-view of this old persecutor and his clique.

This goes on in the second part of the poem, as the recently returned KKK members recall, not without some pride, their latest "achievement". We know about them only through what they say (and what they say is likely to shock readers), in the same way as we know nothing about the old man except for his description of himself as a persecutor. Interestingly, even though we are thus given some "inside view" into a "family" or small "clan-like" distribution of KKK members, these remain as "faceless" as when they are wearing their robe (the only exception to this being that we know one of them is called "Paw" (which interestingly relates to the animal imagery mentioned earlier in the poem ("it was better / than hunting bear / which don't know why / you want him dead"), but do reverse it (the hunter being given an "animal-like" quality). I also believe that the combination of gruesome stories about the beating and of prayer-like appeals reinforces the animal-like inhumanity of the speakers by contrasting the use of the word "Christ" as an incantation ("O Jesus burning on the lily cross") and as a swear word/interjection ("Christ, it was better than hunting bear") (here "Christ" is almost to be understood as "damn" or "fuck"), and by obviously comparing the sufferings of their African-American victim to those of a Christ-like figure.

 

Copyright © 2004 by Thierry Ramais

Joshua Charlson: On "More Light! More Light!"

In "More Light, More Light!" and "Rites and Ceremonies," two poems from The Hard Hours (1968) that deal directly with the consequences of the Shoah, Hecht's lyric voice is neither that of the objective historian nor the subjectively striving voice of individual expression; somewhere in between, Hecht's speakers are both lecteurs describing events in history and individual personas implicated in the traumatic history unfolding before them. Like the narrator of "Behold the Lilies of the Field," who in a dream is "made to watch" the torture of the emperor Valerian, Hecht's Holocaust poems share a state of what Peter Sacks calls "enforced witnessing," that of an individual who is impelled, for reasons reaching beyond his own comprehension, to stare at and perhaps make sense of atrocity. Yet Hecht does not restrict his historical view to the Shoah alone; both of the poems I consider here connect the atrocities of the Nazis to persecutions farther back in history. Indeed, Hecht's sense of continuity and repetition in history, closely connected to the much-remarked-on formalism of his poetry, distinguishes him from most of the other poets treated in this chapter (and from most American writers of the Holocaust). Hecht's poems provide a particularly useful test-case for the problematics of lyric and the Holocaust, for Hecht seems in many ways the prototypical poet's poet, one who places a high esteem on the aesthetic properties of poetry. Yet his poems avoid a merely solipsistic subjectivism; they insist instead that the lyric is historical, that aesthetics need not mean an escape from history but instead are very much implicated in history, yet still capable of providing insight into it

"More Light! More Light!", whose title comes from the words attributed to Goethe at his death, juxtaposes two events: the execution of a heretic in the Middle Ages and the live burial of three Jews "outside a German wood" in wartime. Hecht's voice in the poem is level and somewhat detached but clearly present, unlike the consciousness of Reznikoff's poems. The poem in fact begins in a clipped style that elides the identity of the implied pronoun referred to in the first quatrain:

 

Composed in the Tower before his execution

These moving verses, and being brought at that time

Painfully to the stake, submitted, declaring thus:

"I implore my God to witness that I have made no crime." (64).

 

The identifying "he" appears in the next line, but the reader has already been jarred by the sudden immersion into the description of an execution bereft of historical context or identifiable personage. The next stanza describes the grisly nature of the primitive execution. While I do not quite agree with Edward Hirsch's assertion that the tone of the poem is "documentary," certainly some lines—such as the following—attain an extremely prosaic and descriptive quality: "Nor was he forsaken of courage, but the death was horrible, / The sack of gunpowder failing to ignite" (the words "horrible" and "sack" deflating the more elevated diction of "forsaken of courage"). Similarly, the later scene, "In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down / And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole," is notable for its lack of outward outrage or commentary (64). The largely twelve-syllable or longer lines allow Hecht to achieve this slightly more prosaic level of utterance while still maintaining a sense of gravity; the more regular pattern of pentameter would lend the quatrains a too-restricting formality, potentially emphasizing the aesthetics over the subject matter.

One of the most striking moments of the poem is the transition from the earlier historical atrocity to the more recent one, unambiguously signalled by the single sentence, "We move now to outside a German wood" (64). The voice here is that perhaps of the history teacher, briskly and unapologetically moving his class from one example to the next. Yet if it is a history teacher, the presumed guide offers no critical apparatus, no commentary, no explanation for the specific choice of these two examples. Why does Hecht intrude with this strange stage direction? It seems to me a necessary moment in the poem. The objective tone of the poem is only a fiction, of course, and this line reminds the reader that a "we" does exist—that the poem is not simply a recital of two possibly analogous historical episodes, but presumes a compact between the poet and his readers, a potential for ethical judgment beyond the pointedly non-ethical confines of the poem's narrated action.

The scene in the German wood constitutes a total upheaval of normative expectations. The upheaval consists not merely in the pointlessly cruel command (as in most of Reznikoff’s Holocaust) to bury the Jews alive, but in the Pole's refusal at first to commit the act, followed by the Jews' apparent willingness to do so after "He was ordered to change places with the Jews." "Much casual death had drained away their souls," Hecht writes, apparently accounting for the Jews' action here, and the episode concludes inevitably with the German's reversal of the command once again, and the Pole's carrying out of the murder this time, only to be shot to death himself.

The poem ends with the grotesque image of the Pole's eyes being covered with ashes from the crematoria, continuing the imagery of light, eyes, and sightlessness that appears throughout the poem:

 

No prayers or incense rose up in those hours

Which grew to be years, and every day came mute

Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,

And settled upon his eyes in a black soot. (65)

 

The shutting off of the Pole's vision with the remains of Jewish victims might be taken as a statement about the Pole's blindness to the humanity of the Jews he has helped kill, a blindness already suggested in the line, "No light, no light in the blue Polish eye" (64). But the Pole nevertheless seems a strange figure to make an example of, for he seems almost as much a victim himself as an oppressor. Where is the German (referred to, as Hirsch points out, only metonymically as a "Luger") in all this? And how is the reader to make sense of the movement from the execution of the heretic in the first three stanzas to the more fully narrated murder of the last five?

Peter Sacks suggests that "We become horribly implicated in this poem, beyond merely wondering 'what would we have done?' For if we are somehow made to witness the events, we also survive them—in the company of the only other survivor, the Nazi killer." (91) Yet such a reading of the poem makes central the liminal figure of the German, rather than the Pole who receives most of the attention. (Indeed, it is the Jews who seem the least recognizable figures in the poem, referred to only impersonally and in the plural, perhaps already close to death.) We still must ask why Hecht asks us to identify with the perpetrators here.

One must return, I think, to the title and its implications about the desire or need for light, from Goethe's perspective not simply the literal light that means one is living but the metaphorical light of humanism, enlightenment, moral awakening. And here the connection between the two historical episodes becomes clearer. For it is not a simple analogy that Hecht draws between religious persecution in two different eras (indeed, even the parallel of religious persecution is tenuous, for Jewish belief was hardly an issue for the Nazis, as it was for the Christian inquisitors), but an analogy marked by a significant divergence related to the question of light. For the religious sufferer of the first part, the "Kindly Light" exists as a possibility; the "tranquility" of his soul may be imagined in the face of his torture only because "the name of Christ" still carries that power.

In the latter event, however, light has been thoroughly extinguished. The repetitions of "Not light" and "Nor light" that begin lines 16 and 17, and the phrase "No light, no light" (negatively echoing Goethe's cry) in line 24 establish figuratively what is borne out in the action narrated: that for all parties involved in the Holocaust, any notion of a redeeming light must be dismissed. To the contrary, the poem can be viewed as a repudiation of Goethe's idealistic hope; his Germany has produced the very opposite of the light he so fervently desired. The utter dehumanization of Pole, German, and Jew in this poem attests to a determinedly non-redemptive historical reading on the part of Hecht. Moreover, the poem puts into question the reader's own ability to "see" the events being transcribed. To what extent, the poem challenges us, has our own line of vision been stripped of any capacity to witness atrocity in a compassionate way? From this angle, the Pole may indeed be the appropriate analogue for the American reader, for both nationalities have been called "bystanders" to the Holocaust. The ostensible exculpability of being a bystander, however, is severely undermined when associated with the actions of the Pole—or, more broadly, the many European bystanders who through inaction allowed mass murder to occur. The rigor of Hecht's formal skill does not aestheticize pain in this poem; it does, however, place into tension the restraining qualities of the formal arrangement and the chaotic and violent subject matter bubbling beneath. The simplicity of the form here works in the poem's favor, producing a dynamic tension without calling attention to itself.

Allen Tate: On "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia"

Doubtless, Mr. Tolson does not expect his libretto to have a musical setting; or if he does, one wonders what an audience would make of it. Official celebrations in Liberia cannot differ greatly from those in Washington or Paris, where the apathy of polite inattention is usually all that an official poem deserves. One can imagine in Washington during the New Deal, a patriotic poem being read by the late Stephen Vincent Benèt; but not, I assume, by the late Hart Crane. That may be one difference between the literary culture of official Washington and that of Liberia: Mr. Tolson is in the direct succession from Crane. Here is something marvelous indeed. A small African republic founded by liberated slaves celebrates its centenary by getting an American negro poet to write what, in the end, is an English Pindaric ode in a style derived from – but by no means merely imitative of – one of the most difficult modern poets.

What irony we are entitled to infer from Mr. Tolson’s official appointment to this job I am not prepared to guess. I leave the question with the remark that I cannot imagine a white American poet of equal distinction being given a similar job by President Truman. …

What influence this work will have upon Negro poetry in the United States one awaits with curiosity. For the first time, it seems to me, a Negro poet has assimilated completely the full poetic language of his time and, by implication, the language of the Anglo-American poetic tradition. I do not wish to be understood as saying that Negro poets have hitherto been incapable of this assimilation; there has been perhaps rather a resistance to it on the part of those Negroes who supposed that their peculiar genius lay in "folk" idiom or in the romantic creation of a "new" language within the English language. In these directions interesting and even distinguished work has been done, notably by Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. But there are two disadvantages to this approach: first, the "folk" and "new" languages are not very different from those that White poets can write; secondly, the distinguishing Negro quality is not in the language but in the subject-matter, which is usually the plight of the Negro segregated in a White culture. The plight is real and often tragic; but I cannot think that, from the literary point of view, the tragic aggressiveness of the modern Negro poet offers wider poetic possibilities than the resigned pathos of Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was only a "White" poète manqué. Both attitudes have limited the Negro poet to a provincial mediocrity in which one’s feelings about one’s difficulties become more important than poetry itself. …

… In the end I found I was reading Libretto for the Republic of Liberia not because Mr. Tolson is a Negro but because he is a poet, not because the poem has a "Negro subject" but because it is about the world of all men. And this subject is not merely asserted; it is embodied in a rich and complex language, and realized in terms of the poetic imagination."

Cristina Stanciu: On "Portrait in Georgia"

“The Sinister Figure”: James Weldon Johnson’s “The White Witch” (1922) and Jean Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia” (1923)

Before Richard Wright made the white female body less threatening to black masculinity in his acclaimed novel Native Son (1940) by mutilating the sexualized body of Mary Dalton in Bigger Thomas’s act of self-defense and political statement, the representation of the white female’s destructive power over black masculine subjectivity has been a recurrent theme in African American literature. The emphasis on the white body as sexual subject enticing the black man into the inherent dangers of white ideology displays two complex features: on the one hand, the white woman’s subjectivity -- while voiceless within the boundaries of her race -- is defined in relation to her sexual fantasies with the racial other; on the other hand, the taboo, untouchable white female body devours the black male body, thus giving “the primitive” a new meaning. As Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues, conventionally, black women were associated with “the primitive,” albeit the “libidinous” and “sexually free,” thus fulfilling the white ideological “reading” of the “primitive,” in opposition to the topos of cultural resistance it represented for African Americans (128). Nevertheless, Johnson’s “The White Witch” suggests, underneath the archetypal features of the beautiful white female body lies the savage, primitive, animal nature of the “panther” hunting for her prey, an episode which completely redefines the traditional “portrait” of the Southern belle:

 

And back behind those smiling lips,

And down within those laughing eyes,

And underneath the soft caress

Of hand and voice and purring sighs,

The shadow of the panther lurks.

The spirit of the vampire lies. (lines 25-30)

 

Johnson’s “The White Witch” uses the image of the white female body and its “vampiric” attributes to signal, at the literal level, the threat its luring presence implies; moreover, Johnson’s use of a speaker whose voice, one might argue, comes from the great beyond, intensifies the dramatism of the message and cautions “the younger brothers” against her sexual games. Thus the poem becomes a warning against the enticements of white sexuality: “O brothers mine, take care! Take care!” (line1). Similarly, Jean Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia,” also read by critics as a portrait OF Georgia in its racial violence, examines the superimposed images of a black woman’s body and the ashes of a lynched black (male) body. As George Hutchinson has aptly remarked, Johnson’s white witch remains a “seductive” figure in comparison with Toomer’s “sinister figure” (233). However, it seems only fair to notice that Johnson’s portrait remains “seductive” only at a superficial level. While the last two lines in Toomer’s poem allude to a consumed death of the black male -- “And her slim body, white as the ash / of black flesh after flame” (lines 6-7) -- a similarly sinister message can be read in between Johnson’s lines: “My body like a living coal” (line 38). This line could be interpreted as a direct allusion to the lynch mob’s fire and immanent death despite its literal sexual connotation. Moreover, the allusion to KKK’s white ghostly costumes haunting the Southern nights may open up a new perspective on reading the “witch.” Despite lack of direct evidence, one may speculate that Toomer’s poem is written in direct response to Johnson’s “The White Witch,” given the common images and theme they share, as well as Toomer’s rearticulation of the white figure on the framework created by Johnson (hair, eyes, lips, breath, body), with a deliberate gender ambiguity. Also, chronologically, Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia” is published a year after Johnson’s.

The ethereal appearance of the “white witch” at dusk (both a poetic and a threatening, illusory time) is suggestive of her dual nature: on the one hand, a fairy-tale character (her external body is recreated by the speaker in colorful images); on the other, a life-threatening “vampire” (the internal body is suggested by an accumulation of prepositional phrases that direct the reader’s attention to the preying essence of this luring body: “back behind [those smiling lips],” “down within [those laughing eyes],” and “underneath the soft caress,” lines 25-27). Consequently, under the conventional portrait of the white woman (red lips, fair face, blue eyes, golden hair – the Arian ideal) lies the destructive Medusa, an epitome of the modern white world in search for “primal passions” (line 51), threatening black masculinity. If, indeed, we can read both Johnson’s and Toomer’s poems as exemplary representations of the black persons’ contact with the white world in the big cities during the Great Migration – the white body becoming thus the female-gendered white world – then both poems may reflect the modernism’s lack of vitality and its appeal to the “primitive” in order to revigorate the Western waste land.* Johnson’s speaker cautions the young brothers against the modernity’s (albeit “the white witch’s”) entrapment of their racial capital in an attempt to revitalize modernity. Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ argument, informed by art historian Gill Perry, emphasizes the white culture’s appropriation of primitive tropes in its artistic endeavors, as a critique of modernity. Moreover, she insists that “blacks have often been used by whites as an image of the unconscious of whites – fecund, productive, creative […] in the factory of whiteness” (122-23). Johnson’s poem cautions the black ethnicity against succumbing to such ideological traps, underlining the impossibility of such a (racial) union, “cruel-sweet”:

 

She feels the old Antaean strength

In you, the great dynamic beat

Of primal passions, and she sees

In you the last besieged retreat

Of love relentless, lusty, fierce,

Love pain-ecstatic, cruel-sweet. (Johnson, “The White Witch,” lines 49-54)

 

Whereas the geography of Johnson’s poem is not clearly defined, thus emphasizing flight from the “white witch” regardless of her topographic emergence, Jean Toomer’s portrait is located tentatively “in Georgia.” Barbara Foley has emphasized Toomer’s concern “with contemporaneous episodes of racial violence” (“In the Land of Cotton…” 184), underscoring an important aspect students of Jean Toomer, the modernist writer, tend to forget: “Toomer may have written in a densely symbolistic modernist idiom, but he did not substitute myth for history” (“Toomer’s Sparta” 749). Thus the social relations Toomer criticizes in this work, particularly chaotic and failed human relationships – including inter-racial relations -- need to be interpreted as the writer’s engagement with history rather than its disembodied transcendence. Besides establishing a racist “outline,” poems like “Face” and “Portrait in Georgia” deromanticize the traditional female embodiment by recreating a worn out “face” rather than a sexualized body, a fragmented body of “purple” and “channelled muscles” which announce the old body’s disintegration, portraying a different kind of natural fruition, as it becomes “nearly ripe for worms”:

 

Face –

silver-gray,

like streams of stars,

Brows –

recurved canoes

quivered by the ripples blown by pain,

Her eyes

mists of tears

condensing on the face below

And her channeled muscles

are cluster grapes of sorrow

purple in the evening sun

nearly ripe for worms. (Toomer, “Face”)

 

Discussing this poem, Laura Doyle has offered a very insightful approach of “Face” as a revision of the “body-cataloguing blazon poem” through a deromanticization of the female experience of embodiment (86). In the tradition of the blazon, “Face” offers a careful depiction of female body parts (face, brows, eyes), but the critique becomes implicit in Toomer’s emphasis on pain rather than youthful exuberance. As Eldridge suggests, however, the beauty of this woman does not derive from her association with “superior” attributes (202). Instead, the external beauty is replaced by inner suffering and pain, becoming a relevant instance of what Elaine Scarry has called “the body in pain.” Moreover, the fusion of the woman’s features -- which add a dose of masculinity (“her channeled muscles”) to this portrait of decaying and decomposing female body -- with natural phenomena, also in a state of in-betweenness, point to Toomer’s ironic use of the blazon tradition in a poem that defies formal (prosodic) constraints, and its adaptation to Southern soil. As Doyle concludes, “Unlike the idealized virgin in a Petrarchan blazon, this woman has gray hair, her body quivers with pain rather than desire or duplicity, and her fate is death rather than love” (86-87). The death of this “Face” figure – fragmented, but still bearing the unseen mark of race, rendered through the braided hair, “like a stream of stars” – seems to be emblematic of the death of the entire culture, “purple in the evening sun,” awaiting decomposition, being “nearly ripe for worms.

A less optimistic rendering of the racial body in pain is captured by “Portrait in Georgia,” a highly-anthologized Toomer poem, which shares functional similarly to “Face,” as a preamble to the lynching story in “Blood Burning Moon.” More specifically, in the same tradition of the blazon poem, celebrated features of a (white) woman’s body are ironically linked with the dismembered body parts of a lynched and burned body of a black person, significantly of ambiguous gender. This lyrical portrait of a lynching episode is materialized in “Blood Burning Moon” -- a story in Jean Toomer’s Cane, where “Face” and “Portrait in Georgia” also appeared -- which dramatizes Louisa’s race-inflected double desire, for the white man Bob Stone and the black man Tom Burwell (whose name, a corruption of “burn well,” becomes emblematic of his tragic fate):

 

Hair – braided chestnut,

           coiled like a lyncher’s rope,

Eyes – fagots,

Lips – old scars, or the first red blisters,

Breath – the last sweet scent of cane,

And her slim body, white as the ash

                        of black flesh after flame. (Toomer, “Portrait in Georgia”)

 

Each line opens with an object of physical desire – hair, eyes, lips, breath, slim body – which recreates a specific image of a lynching scene, thus unifying eros and thanatos in an attempt to define both interracial desire and to mark the racialized body with the scars of historical “discipline.” Critics have oscillated between reading the last two lines as a Georgian portrait of “a lynched and burned black woman” (Jones xvii), or a white woman -- a “sinister figure” (Hutchinson 233) – which causes the lynching of the generic balck male for despoiling white womanhood. Eldridge also subscribes to this latter interpretation, suggesting that “The message is clear in all its grim aspects: white woman, symbol of life and beauty, is equally the symbol of violence and death” (211-12). George Hutchinson offers a very insightful approach to this portrait of a “white woman” whom he compares with James Weldon Johnson’s “White Witch” and Amiri Baraka’s Lula in Dutchman, suggesting an identity between the fragments of bodies in Toomer’s poem:

By superimposing the images of the white woman, the apparatus of lynching, and the burning flesh of the black man, Toomer graphically embodies both a union of black male and white female and the terrifying method of exorcising that union to maintain a racial difference the poem linguistically defies. (233-34) (Hutchinson’s emphasis)

All the above-mentioned readings are legitimate and well supported, but they all miss Toomer’s deliberate superimposition of both racial features in a single, fragmented, ambiguously gendered body: “And her slim body, white as the ash / of black flesh after flame.” This superimposition of black and white images aims at collapsing not only racial boundaries – white and black bodies become one in death -- but sexual as well, by depicting the pained and incomplete embodiment of a new, nascent body, emerging after the consummation of the “flame” and the burning of black male and female bodies through an imaginative alchemy. Thus, by collapsing thegender binaries, both James Weldon Johnson and Jean Toomer signal in their poems the dangers of essentializing the body, and the threats of a long history of racism that facilitated the marking of a body by the other.

Suzanne Lynch: On "Portrait in Georgia"

Jean Toomer paints his "Portrait in Georgia" in one continuous movement, beginning with his portrait’s hair and moving down her face toward the rest of her body. While each detail is true to a physical description, it also serves to unmask the central cultural conflict of the American South. He documents hair, eyes, lips, breath, and body, with each feature simultaneously revealing a cultural history stalled in division. From this position Toomer explores the hostility directed towards blacks in general, and mixed-race women in particular with the respective intention of reaching beyond the fragments of body to a "higher consciousness" (Toomer) of racial understanding.

In the absence of any unity Toomer’s portrait reflects definite oppositions between what is visible and what is knowable. His first image of "braided chestnut" hair is, in a somewhat vague perceptual sense, a teasing image that tantalizes us with multiple visions of race. By omitting qualities of texture from the description, Toomer cleverly thwarts any conclusions we might make about the woman’s race. The image of hair does, however, suggest an element of strength, which, of course, further reinforces the racial discomfort fostered by the intangibility of this Georgia woman. And just in case the reader, pulled by some pathology of the ordinary, feels an uncontrollable inclination to racialize this woman, Toomer ruptures this attempt, in similar fashion, by once again avoiding any direct impression of race. "Her slim body, white as ash/ of black flesh after flame" concretizes the slipperiness of racial authority through an indirect comparison of her body to both white ash and black flesh. The reader should note that the only definitive descriptor Toomer offers is her slimness and all else is left to in the realm of supposition. Positioning this woman as neither black nor white, within a world so polarized by color, makes her a destabilizing force within the power dynamics of the culture. She obstructs the system of knowledge that clearly identifies subject positions by race. In this way, Toomer constructs a self-articulated woman who disputes and disables the stability of racial essentialisms, albeit, at the consequence of violent negations. If the poem strips this Georgia woman of her wholeness and reduces her to a series of fragments, it also accounts for that effect by placing her in a social setting of violent white dominance. This, however, does not silence this woman who straddles the line between white and black, for the simple fact that Toomer resurrects her—body and voice—though an art that whispers to a consciousness about the inefficacy of racial segregation, and for that matter, the racial violence directed towards black woman who, either out of love or submission, give themselves up to white men.

Since the poem is organized around racial principles of inclusion and exclusion, of acceptance and rejection, of realities and falsehoods, it is helpful in part to see Toomer’s portrait as an articulation of the emotional and intellectual response to the increasing prevalence of racial dissolution. Apprehension about miscegenation and increasing fear of the invisibility of blackness at the turn of the century created a destructive and dehumanizing environment for those unwilling or unable to conform to racial singularity. Toomer’s Georgia woman, thus, symbolic of the idea that the lives of black and whites are indelibly "braided" in a common southern experience, faces her punishment for exposing the myth of a white purity, supposedly uncontaminated by blackness. For this she becomes her own executioner. Her braided chestnut hair "coiled like a lyncher’s rope" is used to disintegrate the very union it represents, while simultaneously erasing her example as the literal truth of America’s identity.

Disturbing as the individual portrait is, the poem also intends an equally pointed reflection, on American history as a whole. The scarred, blistered lips heal just enough to speak of a woman’s story of human suffering. She does this with the breath of "cane" and with a self-consciousness that links her to the exploitation and abuse that so many marginal southern women faced within an oppressive economy. Such images position Toomer’s Georgia woman, not only as a woman destroyed by irrational fear, but also, more sadly, as a woman destroyed by economic dominance. With this understanding of the poem’s broader, historical context, we can then credit Toomer with creating a voice that grants agency to this mixed-race woman--ironically, though a gradual death that in the end fuses a spiritual and physical return to the land. One might argue, as many scholars have already done for sections of Cane, that this Georgia woman, through her death simultaneously reclaims both her black and white ancestral investment in this southern land. In other words, she claims her dual heritage that was previously denied to her by America’s own internal conflict over race.

Intimating that in the end we are all reduced to ashes—ashes to ashes—that we "Sink into the earth/ To resurrect--/ To project into this conscious world/ An example of the organic; To enact a mystery among facts" (BM)—Toomer’s final image of "her slim body, white as ash/ of black flesh after the flame," renders a subtle, if uneasy, idealization of a world where our similarities link us in common understanding. As a recorder of history, Toomer offers his portrait as an invitation to rethink matters of race representation, and more importantly, race division. The poem also demonstrates the inclinations of its writer, as he works through his own consciousness, he opens the route to racial transcendence through a final integration in which our differences combine in a common product.

Merton Lee: On "Black Men"

Lucia Trent’s poem “Black Men” is a short lyric in iambic pentameter composed in an abab cdcd rhyme scheme. The rhythm doesn’t strain the meter, line 3’s “in the sky” might tend toward an anapest, but the unstressed “stone” in “tombstone” makes it fall iambic. In its prosody, “Black Men” is not built of surprise, but of the accumulated weight of fulfilled expectation. The first stanza begins with a few lyric turns in imagery, the “hollow night wind” clatters, “the earth is leper-pale.” The third line presents a metaphor that stretches the imagination: “The moon lies like a tombstone in the sky.” This line’s awkward metaphor repeats in the final line of the stanza, “Three black men sway upon a lonely hill.” In both these lines the clichéd death imagery, tombstone and lonely hill, convey the plot of the poem. But the poetic excesses, moon as tombstone and the men eerily swaying, create an uneasy kind of nonsense.

The next stanza rapidly zooms in on the scene, closing the space for ambiguity, and then proceeds through weird logical leaps to an ethical decision. Of particular interest is the sixth line, “Soon earth will hide them with a mother’s care.” The earth in the first stanza was ominously leprous and silent, so here there is no warrant to link earth with its maternal aspect. But the anxious imposition of the maternal onto the earth at this moment dramatizes the poem’s fascination and repulsion to the three lynched men. The closeness of the titular black men makes the rest of the poem a turning away into false rationalism, the substitution of a mother’s care with an even more elevated “God’s great mercy.” All of this then culminates in the obvious: “A bitter scorn for those who hung them there.” Perhaps one reason why “Black Men” rings untrue is its perspective of observation, not of experience. The regular meter and lyrical images seem to too solidly fix the trauma of the poem, too readily provide a moral condemnation. For example, Trent’s poem doesn’t compare favorably to Claude McKay’s “The Lynching.” McKay’s poem “The Lynching,” like “Black Men” is formal, in this case a sonnet, and both poems are in third person narration. However, “The Lynching” actually narrates the event of the title in an intense, biblical diction. The end of the poem is as follows:

 

            Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view

            The ghastly body swaying in the sun.

            The women thronged to look, but never a one

            Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue.

 

            And little lads, lynchers that were to be,

            Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee. (9-14)

 

This poem also ends with a sort of moral, but here the moral implicates those who see lynchings. In fact, the poem seems to condemn these onlookers more than the actual lynchers, since the beginning of the poem is narrated from the perspective of blinding pain and thus the perpetrators are invisible. This lack of presentation implies that lynching is caused more by social approval for lynching than the individual choices of violent men. Essentially, McKay understands the logic of the spectacle, that the visual presentation of the lynched body to the community is the means by which lynching consolidates white power and black fear. This is also the logic of 9/11 – according to Slavoj Žižek “the ‘terrorists’ themselves did not do it primarily to provoke real material damage, but for the spectacular effect of it” (11). Thus, McKay is at least partly justified in his condemnation for the white onlooker, that is, his condemnation of Lucia Trent.

Cristina Stanciu: On "Breed, Women, Breed"

Compulsory Maternity in Lucia Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed"

In her incisive article on the condition of women poets in a male-dominated canon in the early 1930s, Lucia Trent finds womanhood a handicap rather than a source of creativity, and bitterly exclaims, "The wonder with a woman working in the arts is the same as that with a performing dog, not that she can do it well or ill, but that she can do it at all" (see article on MAPS). Obviously, this idea has been orchestrated on different levels by other female voices of the time, and represents an instance of female resistance of the "ungifted sisters" to conventional gender roles. However, unlike other "sisters"* promoting the emancipatory image of the "New Woman" (higher education, living wages, birth control; see DuPlessis 3), Trent operates in "Breed, Women, Breed" at a subversive level. Assuming the pose of the "performing dog," with an apparent submissive resignation in the eye (albeit using traditional female issues), Trent undermines the very tradition that feeds the dog ("the owners of mines," "the masters of men," "the war lords") and makes a political statement through images that are usually associated with the female domain ("frail bodies," "the pangs of birth," "the tired backs"). Consequently, "Breed, Women, Breed" is a rebellious cry for a different kind of creativity, a different use of the female body, and a cultural critique of the masculinity of the poetic enterprise.

Forty-one years after Trent, in "The Laugh of the Medusa" (1975), Hélène Cixous pleads for an écriture feminine, the writing of the female body, so as to transcend a masculine libidinal economy that governs Western thought and literature:

Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies. […] By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display. […] Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write your self. Your body must be heard. (2039-43)

Cixous’s feminist manifesto thus suggests that women should reclaim their bodies – the only cultural signifier they possess – and "write" them, taking control of their own bodies. As feminist critics have repeatedly underlined, the woman’s body is not only a text of culture, but also a direct locus of social control. Similarly, in "Breed, Women, Breed," Lucia Trent seems to signal and condemn the docility of female bodies and engage them in a collective social protest, rendered through revolutionary suggestions and a sardonic tone:

"Breed, little mothers, / With a faith patient and stupid as cattle, / Breed for the war lords, / Offer your woman flesh for incredible torment" (14-17).

Moreover, since women’s writing of the social text has been minimal historically, the allusion to "little women," nineteenth-century female writing, has a sarcastic connotation here. Trent’s programmatic poem becomes an advocacy of women writing themselves, writing their "frail bodies" (18). By reclaiming agency over their own bodies/identities in an era when Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement instituted a different stage in women’s relationship with their own bodies, Trent’s speaker simultaneously signals the abuse of women’s bodies (as breeders) and the possibility for women to reclaim their bodies. Thus, a subtextual reading of "Breed, Women, Breed" may be, in fact, "Write, Women, Write!"

Trent’s poem is programmatic as much as Cixous’s feminist manifesto in that it identifies the cause of women writers’ alienation from poetry in their (imposed) alienation from their own bodies. Trent’s images of "little women’s" bodies – hence little, not-cared-for bodies – depict them as instruments for the mechanical reproduction of the work force (I use this term generically, rather than limited to the working class). The "woman flesh," offered almost in a sacrificial gesture for "incredible torment," does not glorify birth, motherhood, and an identity defined by the reproductive function, but suggests the need for a different use of the female body. Contemporary fellow poet Genevieve Taggard also approaches the idea of women’s alienation from their bodies and describes the pangs of compulsory maternity in similar ways to Trent’s: "Now I am slow and placid […] / Torpid, mellow, stupid as a stone" ("With Child" 1921). Similarly, Trent’s deliberate use of the breeding process with a specific destination ("TO BREED FOR") is an allusion to compulsory maternity. However, her rebellious voice and final intensification of her cry (in the final line she uses an exclamation mark, which does not appear in the title) calls for an aesthetization and sexualization of the female bodies, and a poetry which is called to write the real body of the woman. Thus "Breed, Women, Breed" becomes a cultural and political cry for recognizing female cultural agency.

The sarcasm of the speaker (who is not gender-defined) is suggested by the very title of the poem, which imposes a necessary repetition in order to signal the word’s negativity. In other words, the vehemence of the imperative "breed," used twenty-two times throughout the poem, coupled with the fate of the "race of danger-haunted men" -- the products of the "frail bodies" – cries for a necessary change (I would propose, "Stop breeding!"). The repetitive use of "little mothers" may suggest, as Ryan Cull has aptly remarked in his analysis, their lack of voice; they are characterized by their physical condition and their economic use value in the capitalist system -- and the grotesque, bovine allusions to the 19th century pattern of womanhood are quite explicit, especially when the speaker’s tone becomes ruthless in the third stanza and voices a crude sentence: "stupid as cattle." However, "little mothers" (and not just "mothers") may also be used to signify their paradoxical positioning in a world they create physically but do not have full access to, due to the gender barrier. Ultimately, their "little" contribution to the world of "sweating, miserable men" (identified by male occupations: miller, miner, banker, warrior) is ironic, since they "breed" not only the victims of this world (the socially disadvantaged class), but also the victimizers.

Notes

*Trent identifies in her polemic article three categories of women’s poetry at the time: 1) the "strong-brained" or, in DuPlessis’s term, the "logopoetic" type (38); 2) the "minor melodist" type, identified with the majority of women poets writing about feminine interests, i.e. "conventional women absorbed with tea-table topics"; 3) the neither mannish nor conventional type, exploring "human needs and suffering." Although Trent doesn’t define her role/place in the long tradition of female writers -- as does Amy Lowell in her celebrated poem "Sisters," where the split with the tradition is apparent – she seems to adhere to the third type of poetry writing.

Meg Boerema: On "Breed, Women, Breed"

Challenging not only men’s authority over poetic discourse, but also dominant narratives of modernism’s break with sentimentalism, Lucia Trent in "More Power to Poets" (see MAPS page "Lucia Trent on Women Poets") argues radically for the sentimental function of poetry and for women’s poetic expertise: "For poetry is essentially the art of sympathy--and sympathy is essentially the province of women." For Trent, women’s claim upon sympathy/poetry, depends upon women’s capacity for motherhood since mothers, as Trent argues, "learn unselfishness--a basic requirement of true poetry as the poet must perceive the unity of all life." Trent’s outward-looking sympathy then is not a personal sympathy of a private domesticity (she despises the "tea-table topics" of many women poets), but a public sympathy of politicized collectivity; it’s the sympathy of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not of Hallmark’s greeting cards. Locating women’s poetic authority in an idealization of women’s maternity, Trent in "More Power to Poets" rearticulates sentimental ideals of motherhood to political advantage: to claim women’s poetic expertise. Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" similarly evokes sentimental ideals of motherhood for political purposes. Reducing maternity to its economic function, "Breed, Women, Breed" challenges bourgeois ideals of motherhood to incite readers’ outrage against capitalism and its vulgarized motherhood. Like the politicized sentimentalism of Uncle Tom’s Cabin then, Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" garners much of its revolutionary political force through its threat to that conservative, middle-class ideal: motherhood.

"Breed, Women, Breed" devastates romantic ideals of motherhood by denying its mothers’ agency and by locating their sexuality in its capitalistic function. Women in "Breed, Women, Breed" have no control over their reproduction (for Trent the "dark side" of pregnancy: "Pregnancy has its dark side when it does not represent voluntary motherhood" (More Power to Poets). Women are compelled to "Breed, breed, breed!" (line 8 and 24) and have no ability to protect their children once born. Moreover, in "Breed, Women, Breed," women’s sexuality is solely (re)productive, imagined as producing "a race of danger-haunted men,/A race of toiling sweating, miserable men," (lines 4-5) "a race of machines" (line 12). Here, women’s sexuality exists not in a romantic relationship with a lover, but in a capitalist relationship with "the owners of mills and the owners of mines" (line 3), "the bankers, the crafty and terrible masters of men" (line 11), "the devouring war lords" (line 23). Reducing women’s sexuality to its economic function, "Breed, Women, Breed" figures maternity as a sort of prostitution, a painful affront to those invested in romanticized ideals of a protective motherhood.

Yet though the poem everywhere denies the existence of a romanticized motherhood, it nowhere denies motherhood as an ideal. Rather, "Breed, Women, Breed" critiques capitalism by appealing to bourgeois ideals of motherhood and by soliciting a sort of maternal sympathy from its readers. Just as Eliza’s son should not be sold to slave owners in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the sons of the mothers in "Breed, Women, Breed" should not be sold to "the terrible masters of men" (line 11 and 22): the owners, bankers, and war lords. "Breed, Women, Breed" then--much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin wherein Eliza appeals, "’Have you ever lost a child?’" (149)--figures the reader as a sort of surrogate mother. The reader, called upon to perform as that agent mother absent from the poem, cannot possibly continue to allow her children to become "a race of toiling, sweating miserable men" (line 5). "Breed, Women, Breed" then does not contest a bourgeois valuation of the maternal relationship, but depends upon it. The problem, as the poem imagines, is not that motherhood is a false ideal (it’s not that mothers don’t care what happens to their children), but that the ideal is denied by capitalism (it’s that mothers don’t control what happens to their children).

Motherhood then, as it was in much of 19th century American sentimentalism, is central to the political performance of sympathy in "Breed, Women, Breed," and even motherhood’s centrality to the poem’s rhetorical appeals can be read through its political performance. As Jane Tompkins argues of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Sensational Designs:

The brilliance of the strategy is that it puts the central affirmations of a culture into the service of a vision that would destroy the present economic and social institutions; by resting her case, absolutely, on the saving power of Christian love and on the sanctity of motherhood and the family, Stowe relocates the center of power in American life, placing it not in the government, nor in the courts of law, nor in the factories, nor in the marketplace, but in the kitchen. (145)

Jane Tompkins’s reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be easily read towards Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed"; only in "Breed, Women, Breed," I would argue, the center of power rests not in kitchen, but in the bedroom. Power extends even here, and it is here, the poem argues, that women shall exercise their complicity or resistance.

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