Al-Ma’arri: the poet as religious sceptic

ZP_Champion of the World_2011 painting copyright Brian Whelan_Christ on the left Beelzebub on the right and God the referee up top “Champion of the World”, a painting by Brian Whelan, 2011. Jesus to the left, Beelzebub on the right, and God-the-Referee centre!

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Al-Ma’arri (Ma’arri, Syria, 973-1058)

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Whenever man from speech refrains, his foes are few,

Even though he’s stricken down by fortune and falls low.

Silently the flea sips up its fill of human blood,

Thus making less the heinousness of its sin:

It follows not the way parched mosquitoes go,

Trumpeting with high-trilled note, you smarting all the while.

If an insolent man thrusts a sword of speech against you,

Oppose him with your patience, so you may break its edge.

…..

The body, which gives you during life a form,

Is but your vase: be not deceived, my soul!

Cheap is the bowl for storing honey in,

But precious for the contents of the bowl.
…..

We laugh, but inept is our laughter,

We should weep, and weep sore,

Who are shattered like glass and thereafter

Remolded no more.

…..

Two fates still hold us fast,

A future and a past;

Two vessels’ vast embrace

Surrounds us—time and space.

And when we ask what end

Our Maker did intend,

Some answering voice is heard

That utters no plain word.

…..
You said, “A wise one created us”;

That may be true, we would agree.

Outside of time and space,” you postulated.

Then why not say at once that you

Propound a mystery immense

Which tells us of our lack of sense?

…..

They all err—Muslims, Jews,

Christians, and Zoroastrians:

Humanity follows two world-wide sects:

One, man intelligent without religion,

The second, religious without intellect.

…..

So, too, the creeds of man: the one prevails

Until the other comes; and this one fails

When that one triumphs; ah, the lonesome world

Will always want the latest fairy tales.

…..

There was a time when I was fain to guess

The riddles of our life, when I would soar

Against the cruel secrets of the door,

So that I fell to deeper loneliness.

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(Translation from Arabic: Henry Baerlein, 1909)
…..

Live well! Be wary of this life, I say;

Do not o’erload yourself with righteousness.

Behold! the sword we polish in excess,

We gradually polish it away.

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(Translation from Arabic: Henry Baerlein, 1909)

…..

What is religion? A maid kept close that no eye may view her;

The price of her wedding gifts and dowry baffles the wooer.

Of all the goodly doctrine that I from the pulpit heard

My heart has never accepted so much as a single word.

…..

Traditions come from the past, of high import if they be true;

Ah, but weak is the chain of those who warrant their truth.

Consult thy reason and let perdition take others all:

Of all the conference Reason best will counsel and guide.

A little doubt is better than total credulity.
.     .     .

Translations* from Arabic into English:  Reynold Alleyne Nicholson (1868-1945)

*Except for two poems translated by Henry Baerlein

.     .     .

Al-Ma’arri (973-1058), whose full name was Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī,  (in Arabic:  أبو العلاء أحمد بن عبد الله بن سليمان التنوخي المعري  )  was born in Ma’arra, Syria.  He was a poet of common sense, a rationalist, a reasonable sceptic – and yet a pious man, too.   Are his poems heretical?   To some, yes.   Yet he wrote his Truth.  Not until the Enlightenment in the 18th century would such confident scepticism in Western thought arise again among poets and writers.   Al-Ma’arri’s sarcasm was egalitarian; Judaism, Christianity, and his own Islam all got from him a good tongue-lashing.   Reason he valued – above “tradition” or “revelation”.     Al-Ma’arri’s writings put us in mind of Xenophanes of Colophon, Lucretius, and the Cārvāka philosophers of India – all of whom were sharp minds that pierced beyond received Wisdom.

.     .     .


“Yo cumplo mi encuentro con La Vida” / “I keep Life’s rendezvous”: Poemas para Viernes Santo / Good Friday poems: Countee Cullen

ZP_Simon of Cyrene_painting by Theophilus of Knoxville, Tennessee

ZP_Simon of Cyrene_painting by Theophilus of Knoxville, Tennessee

 

Countee Cullen (Poeta negro del “Renacimiento de Harlem”, E.E.U.U., 1903-1946)

Habla Simón de Cirene”

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Nunca me habló ninguna palabra

pero me llamó por mi nombre;

No me habló por señas,

y aún entendí y vine.

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Al princípio dije, “No cargaré

sobre mi espalda Su cruz;

Sólo procura colocarla allá

porque es negra mi piel.”

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Pero Él moría por un sueño,

Y Él estuvo muy dócil,

Y en Sus ojos hubo un resplandor

que los hombres viajarán lejos para buscar.

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Él – el mismo – ganó mi piedad;

Yo hice solamente por Cristo

Lo que todo el Imperio romano no pudo forjar en mí

con moretón de látigo o de piedra.

 

.      .     .

 

Countee Cullen (1903-1946)

Simon the Cyrenian Speaks”

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He never spoke a word to me,

And yet He called my name;

He never gave a sign to me,

And yet I knew and came.

At first I said, “I will not bear

His cross upon my back;

He only seeks to place it there

Because my skin is black.”

But He was dying for a dream,

And He was very meek,

And in His eyes there shone a gleam

Men journey far to seek.

It was Himself my pity bought;

I did for Christ alone

What all of Rome could not have wrought

With bruise of lash or stone.

 

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Luke 23:26

And as they led Him away, they laid hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country,

and on him they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus”.

 

.     .     .

 

Tengo un encuentro con La Vida”

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Tengo un encuentro con La Vida,

durante los días que pasen,

antes de que pasen como un bólido mi juventud y mi fuerza de mente,

antes de que las dulces voces se vuelvan mudas.

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Tengo un ‘rendez-vous’ con Esta Vida.

cuando canturrean los primeros heraldos de la Primavera.

Por seguro hay gente que gritaría que sea tanto mejor

coronar los días con reposo en vez de

enfrentar el camino, el viento, la lluvia

para poner oídos al llamado profundo.

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No tengo miedo ni de la lluvia, del viento, ni del camino abierto,

pero aún tengo, ay, tan mucho miedo, también,

por temor de que La Muerte me conozca y me requiera antes de que

yo cumpla mi ‘rendez-vous’ con La Vida.

 

.     .     .

 

I have a rendezvous with Life”

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I have a rendezvous with Life,

In days I hope will come,

Ere youth has sped, and strength of mind,

Ere voices sweet grow dumb.

I have a rendezvous with Life,

When Spring’s first heralds hum.

Sure some would cry it’s better far

To crown their days with sleep

Than face the road, the wind and rain,

To heed the calling deep.

Though wet nor blow nor space I fear,

Yet fear I deeply, too,

Lest Death should meet and claim me ere

I keep Life’s rendezvous.

 

 

.     .     .

Countee Cullen produced most of his famous poems between 1923 and 1929;  he was at the top of his form from the end of his teens through his 20s – very early for a good poet.

His poems “Heritage”, “Yet Do I Marvel”, “The Ballad of the Brown Girl”, and “The Black Christ” are classics of The Harlem Renaissance.  We feature here two of Cullen’s lesser-known poems

– including Spanish translations.

.     .     .     .     .

Traducciones del inglés al español:   Alexander Best


“The Last Supper or: From now on, the worms speak for him” / “La Última Cena”

ZP_Jugando al Domino_Playing at Dominos_José Fuster

ZP_Jugando al Dominó_Playing at Dominos_José Fuster

Mario Meléndez (nace/born 1971, Chile)

La Última Cena” / “The Last Supper or: From now on, the worms speak for him”

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Y el gusano mordió mi cuerpo
y dando gracias
lo repartió entre los suyos diciendo
“Hermanos
éste es el cuerpo de un poeta
tomad y comed todos de él
pero hacedlo con respeto
cuidad de no dañar sus cabellos
o sus ojos o sus labios
los guardaremos como reliquia
y cobraremos entrada por verlos”.

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And the worm bit into my body

and, giving thanks,

divided it among his brethren, saying:

“Brothers,

this is the body of a poet

– take it, eat all of it,

but do this with respect,

careful not to harm the hair upon his head,

or his eyes, or his lips

– we will keep those as sacred relics

and we’ll charge an entry fee for people to see them.”

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Mientras esto ocurría
algunos arreglaban las flores
otros medían la hondura de la fosa
y los más osados insultaban a los deudos
o simplemente dormían a la sombra de un espino.
.

While this was going on

some were arranging flowers,

others were gauging the depth of the grave,

and the boldest ones were busy offending the relatives and mourners

– or merely sleeping ‘neath the shade of a hawthorn tree.

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Pero una vez acabado el banquete
el mismo gusano tomó mi sangre
y dando gracias también
la repartió entre los suyos diciendo
“Hermanos
ésta es la sangre de un poeta
sangre que será entregada a vosotros
para el regocijo de vuestras almas
bebamos todos hasta caer borrachos
y recuerden
el último en quedar de pie
reunirá los restos del difunto”.

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But once the banquet was finished

the same worm drank my blood

and, also giving thanks,

shared my blood among the rest of those present,

saying:

“Brothers,

this is the blood of a poet,

blood consecrated for you

for the sake of your souls’ rejoicing

– drink all of it until you fall down drunk,

that you may remember:

in high heaven it’s a stubborn fact –

you will be reunited with the remains of the deceased.”

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Y el último en quedar de pie
no solamente reunió los restos del difunto
los ojos, los labios, los cabellos
y una parte apreciable del estómago
y los muslos que no fueron devorados
junto con las ropas
y uno que otro objeto de valor
sino que además escribió con sangre
con la misma sangre derramada
escribió sobre la lápida
“Aquí yace Mario Meléndez
un poeta
las palabras no vinieron a despedirlo
desde ahora los gusanos hablaremos por él”.

.

And the last-gasp fact…

not only was it the ‘joining-together’ of all of them

with the remains of the deceased –

his eyes, his lips, the hair upon his head,

an appreciable part of his stomach,

the thighs which were not devoured,

together with his clothing

and one or another item of value –

but that, moreover,

it was written in blood – that same spilt blood –

he wrote upon his own headstone:

“Here lies Mario Meléndez, a poet.

Words never came to bid him farewell,

and from now on,

the worms speak for him.”

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Traducción/interpretación en inglés:   Alexander Best

.     .     .

Mario Meléndez studied journalism at La República University in Santiago, Chile.  In 1993 – the bicentennial of Linares – he won that city’s Municipal Prize for Literature.  In 2003, in Rome, he was made an honorary member of the Academy of European Culture, after speaking at the First International Gathering for Amnesty and Solidarity of The People.  In 2005 he won the Harvest International Prize for best poem in Spanish from the University of California Polytechnic.


Alan Clark: “Guerrero and Heart’s Blood” / “Guerrero y Sangre del Corazón”

ZP_Mythic by Alan Clark

ZP_Mythic by Alan Clark_Mítico por Alan Clark

Un extracto en cinco voces – de “Guerrero y Sangre del Corazón” por Alan Clark:

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Guerrero habla:

“Yo soy Gonzalo Guerrero, Capitán al servicio de Nachancán, Señor de Chetumal. Casado. Un padre. Cortado y cubierto de cicatrices y decorado con tintes. Un guerrero conocido entre mi gente como “hombre valiente”.

Yo no soy aquel que fui. En Palos, donde nací, mi anterior familia vive todavia, a menos que haya habido una plaga o una guerra. Mi padre y mi madre quizás vivan aún. Pero lo dudo.

Había un árbol alto junto a la vieja casa, al que mi hermano Rodrigo y yo solíamos atar una soga, que dejábamos caer al suelo, luego trepábamos hasta lo más delgado del tronco y -pas!- soltábamos la cuerda y volábamos en el cielo cálido y azul entre el estruendo de las hojas. Les hacíamos jugarretas.

A nuestras hermanas, las espíabamos cuando se bañaban, y detestábamos la escuela y al cura de la iglesia, que nos pegaba en el nombre de Dios.

Ahora estoy muy lejos de todo eso. Soy algo así como un noble, y jefe en tiempo de guerra. Ahora escucho mensajes en el humo de papeles ensangrentados que los sacerdotes encienden en la cima de los templos, papeles empapados en la sangre de sus propios miembros desgarrados. A veces la sangre es mía. Me toca oficiar cuando se hace un sacrificio, y sentir como los cielos y la tierra cambian y se estremecen y se reconstruyen a sí mismos con el advenimiento de la más suprema de las ofrendas sagradas. Como un pequeño trozo del esclavo, del niño, o del cautivo, que quizás yo mismo haya sometido con estas manos. Su terror anticipa el temblor aún mayor del mundo una vez que hayamos cortado y ofrendado y ungido. Me tomó mucho tiempo vencer mi propio terror y repulsión.

El gran Señor Nachancán, quien me tomó luego que escapé de su espantoso vecino y enemigo, vió en mi lo que quizás yo nunca hubiese visto por mi mismo. Me dijo que de una sola mirada, cuando fui llevado ante él, consumido y cubierto con mis andrajos de esclavo, supo mi lugar en los cielo, a pesar de mi apariencia. Incluyendo mi negra barba crecida y despareja.

.     .     .

Habla Nachancán:

“Ja. Las noticias sobre los extranjeros habían llegado a mí aún antes de que desembarcaran. Mis mensajeros esparcieron las nuevas. Lo recuerdo bien. Conejo Dos pidió las jaulas y los postes. Kinich Ek quería a las dos mujeres. Le dimos una. Le arrancaron el corazón antes de terminar el día, como a los otros tres. Yo tomé una, para que ayudara a mi esposa y para interrogarla. Hace ya un año que murió. Mi mujer es muy dura con sus esclavos. Pero los alimenta bien.

Eran un grupo raro. Les arrancamos sus andrajos impregnados de sal para ver si eran humanos, como nosotros. Nuestros magos y sacerdotes los atormentaban y les lanzaron hechizos de humo. Eran hombres, pero blancos y peludos. Y hablaban un idioma que no pudimos entender, y temblaban en el calor, implorándonos por señas que les diéramos agua y comida. Los pusimos en jaulas para que engordaran. No sabían mal, cocidos con chiles. Nada mal…

Sólo quise uno para mí. Fue primero con Conejo, que es cruel y estúpido, hasta que un día huyó y vino a mí. Desde el primer momento vi en él a alguien de provecho, alguien para nosotros. Mi lengua se adelantó a mi voluntad: dénmelo.

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Habla Nachancán:

Extraño pocas cosas. Mi naturaleza es afable como esta sonrisa que ven. Y la risa siempre a flor de labios – lo que a veces ha hecho pensar a mis enemigos que estoy loco…sus cabezas no sonríen desde donde nos miran, sobre los escalones del templo. Pronto sus ceños fruncidos desaparecerán. Y entonces las moscas se reirán para mí.

Cuando llegó, el extranjero Guerrero, noté que su presencia alteraba mucho a mi hija, Mucuy, que le lanzó una mirada de odio, y luego le ignoró. Cuando llegó la siguiente oportunidad de sangrarme, pedí a los dioses que me dieran su respaldo. Las serpientes no dicen más que lo necesario.

.      .      .

Aguilar habla:

¿Y dónde está la maldita gloria para el que va a morir? Esta noche se van a llevar a uno de mis pupilos a la piedra. Su nombre es Pop Che. Durante semanas he estado llevándole agua y comida. Pero no quería comer. ¿Puede alguien culparlo? Y, oh Dios, sólo es un muchachito. Un granjero que un día se puso su camisa de algodón, desenpolvó su lanza, se puso algunas plumas en el pelo –y dejó a su mujer, a sus hijos, y a su anciana madre, para ir a pelear contra Nachancán y los soldados perdidos de Guerrero. Y ahora está aquí con nosotros. Todo mi coraje es inútil. ¿Y qué han logrado todas mis plegarias por él? Le darán la bebida, lo pintarán, y…

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Pero ¡ay!, la sangre de mi corazón se va con él. Qué puedo hacer más que seguir rezando y llevarle más agua. ¿Decirle que el dios que ni siquiera acepta lo espera en los cielos para tomarlo en sus brazos celestiales? Ya vienen. Los tambores han comenzado a sonar. Ay, ese sonido me llega como si me golpeasen a mí. Estoy asqueado y harto de todo.

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Aguilar habla:

No es tan malo ser esclavo. No es tan malo estar vestido con harapos desechados, ser pateado e insultado y golpeado hasta morir por gente perdida en supersticiones. Y admite que hay cierto arte en lo que hacen, y a veces gran belleza en sus vestidos tejidos, y en sus vasijas de barro pintado. Inclusive en el brillante decorado de las piedras y del oro con los que se adornan, y con los que a veces se perforan grotescamente. Sus canciones y cantos, el embrujo de los tambores y las flautas, las trompetas y las caracolas. No soy ciego ni sordo a estas cosas. ¡Pero sus dioses me consternan, representan el horror del deseo de sangre del demonio, y en el momento del sacrificio quisiera aullar, conjurar la venganza de Dios para que desmenuzara hasta hacerlos polvo estos templos blanqueados de cal y manchados de sangre! Dios salve nuestras almas.

.     .     .

Alicia habla:

¡Gonzalo! ¡Gonzalo! Los viejos ojos de tu madre están puestos en ti. Dondequiera que estés, estos ojos te acompañan. Hoy me puse a quemar algunas ramas del viejo árbol que da las naranjas que tanto te gustaban. Esas ramas ya están viejas y secas porque hace ya tanto que te fuiste. ¿Para siempre? Y porque tu padre ha muerto. Murió la muerte rápida y fea de la plaga –su lengua estaba negra y gruesa, se ahogaba- y no podía decir tu nombre. Tu hermano y tus hermanas están bien. Eres tío de una horda de niños.

Gonzalo. Por el amor que te tengo, te entiendo y te veo, dondequiera que estés. En las cavernas de tu corazón, en el poder de tus brazos y de tu mente, siempre me he maravillado. Tal como ahora que sueño y te veo. Y no me preocupo, sólo te extraño. ¿Será que te has ido para siempre de tu hogar, de nosotros? En donde tu padre te engendró de la pasión por su madre, que te trajo con alegría y dolor, mi primer hijo. Mi amor por ti, buen hijo errante, jamás ha mermado, ni lo hará jamás, aún después de nuestra muerte terrenal. Y ahora, para verte, sólo me queda esperar ese día, porque estos viejos ojos ya no lo ven todo.

Con esta vieja mano alzo una naranja al sol, y huelo en el humo que se levanta de las viejas ramas de tu árbol favorito, el sabor de la fruta que aún perdura en él. Y con las cenizas que queden, abonaré mi jardín en tu nombre. Buen hijo.

.     .     .

Mucuy habla:

Acerca tuyo, esposo mío, déjame hablar. Tu fértil esposa ha yacido despierta junto a ti muchas noches, sintiéndose feliz y afortunada. Que al principio no podía entender. Tu eras un extraño, y –casi- parecías un animal. Tu cuerpo enfermo y pálido, tus mejillas cubiertas de pelo, y tu hablar rápido y extraño, me descorazonaba. Cuando me miraste por primera vez, me estremecí y sentí que gritaba por dentro, así que le pedí a mi madre que me explicara porque me causabas tanta confusión, que me dijera qué y quién eras, un hombre que daba tan mala impresión en todo. Si bien uno del que mi padre se expresó como si fuese su propio hijo. Pero finalmente el amor se reveló en mi corazón. Y te encontré esperándome como el sol cuando llueve, y crecí, y aprendí que nuestras caricias arrojaban una luz secreta mientras la luna aguardaba en su oscuro mundo para brillar sobre lo que surgiera. En ti encuentro, dentro de mis más ardientes deseos y mi famoso carácter, toda la suavidad y el peligro que toda mujer anhela, y escuché tus palabras que vagaban como los inseguros pasos de la niñez hacia mí, y temblé al sentir como te arrimabas a mí como las aguas del mar de Cozumel, que llegan a azotar día y noche, como el temblor de mis nervios mientras me preparo a mi festín de ti, con mis lenguas y dientes deseando tu sabor.

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Así he llegado a conocerte, y de ello nació esta mujer fuerte, que en su pasión nutre la vida de toda su gente… porque antes sólo era buena para esperar, hasta que el mar te arrojó de quien sabe donde, más allá de donde los soles salen para alumbrar los días. Tu viniste de algún otro lugar, de donde te enviaron los dioses y las diosas.

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Mucuy habla de su intimidad con Guerrero:

Ay, tu lengua tropezando y enredándose con la mía, pareciera haberse convertido en aquella con la que naciste. Te veo caminar entre los hombres, algunos de ellos hermanos míos, los mejores hijos de Nachancán y de la madre que tengo la bendición de poder ver

todos los días, y veo que tú eres uno de nosotros tanto como es posible, y por eso perdono tan fácilmente tus cuestionamientos, tus sueños, mi apetito nocturno, para ayudar a revelarte, mientras los años se desenredan en nuestros cuerpos acostados, o caminando entrelazados tal como nuestros espíritus lo están, y entender tus necesidades antes que tú mismo. Hemos susurrado mucho más allá del tiempo en que los pájaros se van a dormir acurrucándose en sus alas, sobre el misterio de cómo llegamos a ser uno.

.

Mucuy habla sobre la necesidad de que Guerrero participe en los sacrificios:

¿Acaso no soy, querido esposo, padre de mi hija e hijos, también tu maestra en las cosas que tanto te hacen temblar? Al fin ascenderás las escaleras del templo, y te infligirás las heridas que sangren y alimenten los fuegos de lo que verás, las cosas que ves tú mucho más claramente que yo, que te digo: mi tierno y sobrecogedor hombre –¡ve con papá Nachancán y con Pool, y los demás, esta noche, y sé un hombre! Nadie espera que puedas saber qué tanto dependen de ti este ritual y esta vida, aunque me hayas dicho que va contra tu formación. Sé valiente, mi querido esposo, y conoce la sangre que se derramará sobre ti; saboréala si puedes. El muchacho nació para esto. Su corazón fue medido desde el comienzo del mundo –para esto. El dios cuyos días han vuelto a llegar, ha hablado, y mantiene unidas las piedras sobre las que reposa –para esto. Espera que nuestros ojos se glorifiquen en estas muertes –por él. Para que nosotros en él lo veamos y honremos.

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Traducción del inglés al español:  Lisa Primus

.     .     .

Gonzalo Guerrero (1470-1536) fue un marino español y uno de los primeros europeos que vivió en el seno de una sociedad indígena.  Murió luchando contra los conquistadores españoles.  Guerrero es un personaje porfiado porque se aculturó al punto de ser un jefe maya durante la conquista de Yucatán.   En México  se refieren a él como Padre del Mestizaje.   Presentamos aquí la obra del escritor y pintor Alan Clark – “Guerrero and Heart’s Blood /Guerrero y Sangre del Corazón” (Henning Bartsch, México, D. F., 1999) con la traducción de Lisa Primus.

ZP_Blood and Stone by Alan Clark_Sangre y Piedra por Alan Clark

ZP_Blood and Stone by Alan Clark_Sangre y Piedra por Alan Clark

An excerpt in five voices – from “Guerrero and Heart’s Blood” by Alan Clark:

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Guerrero speaks:

I am Gonzalo Guerrero, Captain in the service of Nachancan, Lord of Chektumal. Married. A father. Cut and scarred and decorated with inks. A warrior, who is known among my people as a “brave man”.

.

I am no more what I used to be. In Palos, where I was born, my old family still lives. Unless there’s been a plague, or a war. My father and mother may still be alive, my brothers and sisters who I played with, and tormented. Maybe nothing has changed. Maybe everything. But I doubt that.

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There was tall tree by our old house, my brother Rodrigo and I would tie a rope to, then pull it down to the ground, climb onto its thin trunk, and snap! Let the rope go and fly into the hot blue air in a clamor of leaves. We played tricks on our sisters, spied on them in their baths when we were all older. And hated the fathers of the church, who beat us in the name of God.

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Now I’m far away from all of that. I am a kind of lord myself, and a chief in time of war. Now I harken to the messages in the smoke of blood stained papers the priests ignite on the temple tops. Papers drenched in their own blood, from their own shredded members. Sometimes the blood is my own. I am in attendance when a sacrifice is made, and feel the earth and the skies change and quiver and recast themselves at the advent of this most supreme offering. I eat some small piece of the slave or the child or the captive I myself, with these same hands, may have subdued. Their terror anticipates the wide world’s trembling when we have cut and offered and anointed. It took a long time to get past my own terror and revulsion.

.

The great Lord Nachancan, who took me in after I had escaped from his horrific neighbor and enemy, saw in me what I had perhaps would never have seen, myself. He told me that from one look, as I was brought before him, worn out, in my slave’s rags, he knew my place in the heavens and was undeceived by my appearance otherwise. Even by my ragged, black beard.

.     .     .

Nachancan speaks:

Ha. The word about the strangers was in my ear before they landed. My messengers had run with the news. I remember it well. Two Rabbit called for the cages and the long poles. Kinich Ek wanted the two women. We gave him one. Her heart was out before the day ended. The other I took to help my wife, and to question. It was only a year ago she died. My wife works her slaves very hard. But feeds them well.

.

They were a strange crew. We stripped them of their salty rags to see if they were human, like ourselves. Our priest and magician poked them all over and spelled them with smokes. They were men, but white and hairy, and spoke in a tongue we didn’t understand. They shivered in the heat, begging us by signs for food and drink. We put them into the cages. They did not taste too bad, cooked with chilies. Not too bad…

.

Only one I wanted for myself. He went first to Rabbit, who is stupid and cruel, until the day he ran to me. From the first, I saw him as someone of use, someone for us. My tongue spoke out ahead of me: Give me him.

 .

There is little I miss. My nature is this smile you see, and the laughter that brims in my blood. Which has sometimes made my enemies think I am a fool. Their heads don’t smile from where they stare out on the temple steps. Soon enough their sagging frowns are gone, and then the buzzards make a laughing sign to me.

.

When he came, the stranger, Guerrero, I could see the sight of him upset too much my daughter, Mucuy. She glowered and shot an arrow from her eyes, and then would look no more. When I next bled myself, I asked the gods to second me in what I’d seen. The serpent speaks no more than we can know.

.     .     .

Aguilar speaks:

And where is the glory for the one who’s going to die? They’re taking a ward of mine up to the stone tonight. His name is Pop Che. For weeks I’ve brought him his food and water. But he won’t eat. Can you blame him? And, O God, he’s only a little man, a farmer who put on his cotton shirt one day, and dusted off his spear, left his wife and his children, and old mother, to go fight against Nachancan and the lost Guerrero’s soldiers.

.

And now he’s here with us. All my raging is useless. What have my prayers for him accomplished? They’ll give him the drink, paint him and feather him, and then….

.

But O! my heart’s blood goes with him. What else can I do? Tell him that the God he doesn’t even want, is waiting in heaven to hold him in his heavenly arms?

.

Here they come. The drums have started. Ah! That sound pounds into me as if it was me they were striking. I am sick and weak with everything.

.

It is not so bad, to be a slave. It is not so bad to be dressed in rags, to be kicked and insulted and worked almost to death by people lost in their superstitions. I will even admit there’s a certain art in what they do, and sometimes great beauty in their woven cloths, in their painted earthenwares. Even in the glittering ornateness of the stones and gold with which they adorn themselves. And are sometimes pierced to grotesqueness by!

.

I am not blind and deaf to these things. But their gods dismay me, are the horror of the Devil’s own wish for blood. And at the moment of sacrifice, I want to howl! and call God’s vengeance down to crumble to dust these whitewashed and bloodstained temples. God save all our souls…

.     .     .

Alicia speaks:

Gonzalo. Gonzalo. Your mother’s eyes are on you. Wherever you are, these eyes are on you. Today I’m burning some branches from the old tree that bears the fruit, the oranges you love, branches old and dry now because you’ve been gone so long. Forever?

.

Your father is dead. He died the fast and ugly death of plague, and couldn’t even speak your name. Your brothers and sister are well. You are now the uncle to a horde of growing kin.

.

Gonzalo. In my love for you, I understand and see you, wherever you may be. Of the passions of your heart, of the power of your arms and mind, I have always been in wonderment. This is no less so this hour I dream and see you. O, and I do not worry, but only miss you so! Forever gone from us and this, your home? Where your father seeded you in passion with his wife, who bore you happily in pain. My first born child.

 .

My love for you, good son and wanderer, has never ceased, nor will it ever, even beyond our earthly dying. And now I only wait to see you then, because these old eyes cannot see everything they wish to.

.

With this hand I lift an orange to the sun, and smell in the smoke that rises from the worn out branches of your favorite tree, the savor of the fruit that lived within. And with the ashes left, will feed my garden in your name. Good son.

.     .     .

 Mucuy speaks:

About you, my husband, let me speak. Your fertile wife has lain awake beside you many nights, and felt a wonder at her fortune. Which at first she could not feel. You were a stranger, almost, it seemed, a beast. Your body was sick and pale, your cheeks filled with hair, your strange, fast words dismaying me. When you first looked at me, I shivered and grew shrill, and asked my mother to explain the confusions you provoked, to tell me who and what you were, a man so alrogether wrong. But one of whom my father spoke as if you were a son.

.

But then my love unclouded in my heart. I found you waiting there for me like sun and summer rain. And I grew, and knew our touches cast in secret lightness while the moon was waiting in her darkest world to shine on what would be.

.

I found in you, inside my fiercest wish and famous temper, all my softness, and the danger any woman wants. And listened to your words, which wandered like the hesitating steps of childhood toward me, and trembled for the way you washed against me, like the waters of the sea off Cozumel, coming in to thunder day and night, like the trembling of my nerves as I’m edging toward my feast of you, whose taste my tongues and teeth desire.

.

Like this, I’ve come to know you, and out of this become the woman who is strong, and in her passion feeds the life of all her people. Because before, I was only great in waiting – when you washed ashore from nowhere, from somewhere out beyond where all the suns rise up to gleam awake the days. From somewhere else you came, the goddesses and gods had sent you.

.

And O, your stumbling tongue in tangling with my own, has since become as if it was the one you hatched with. I watch you walk among the men, some of them my brothers, the strongest sons of Nachancan, and the mother who I live in blessedness to see each day, and know that you are one of us as much as you can be, your dreams my nightly appetite to help explain to you, as the years unravel in our bodies lying down, or walking braided as our spirits are, and understand your needs before you do yourself. We’ve whispered long past the hour the birds have gone to sleep inside their wings, about the mystery of why we came to be as one.

.

Mucuy speaks about his need to attend the sacrifices:

Am I not, dear husband, father of my daughter and sons, also yet your teacher in the things that make you tremble so? At last! To climb the temple steps and prick upon yourself the wound that bleeds, and feeds the fire of what you’ll see there, the things you see so much more than I!

.

Who say to you, my tender, overwhelming man: Go to, with father Nachancan, and Pool, and the others on this night and be a man! No one expects that you can know how much this ritual, how much this life depends on you, you have told me goes against your way. Be brave, my darling husband, and know the blood that will spatter onto you, and taste it if you can. The boy is born for this. His heart is measured since the world began, for this. The God whose day has come around again, has spoken, and commands the stones themselves he rests upon, to worship him.

 .     .     .     .     .

Alan Clark writes:


Gonzalo Guerrero (1470-1536) was a sailor from Palos de la Frontera, Spain, and was shipwrecked around 1511 while sailing from Panama to Santo Domingo with a dozen or so others.  They drifted for a couple of weeks before Caribbean currents brought them to the shores of what is now the State of Quintana Roo in modern-day México where they were captured by Maya people and put into cages.  Eight years later when Hernán Córtes arrived at Kùutsmil (Cozumel ) to begin what would be the Conquest of México, there were only two from this shipwreck still alive – Guerrero, and a priest named Jerónimo de Aguilar.  Guerrero was by this time married with children, the first mestizos in México, and was a chief in time of war for the Maya lord Nachancán.  Aguilar was a slave living in another city state.
.
I’ve attempted, through Guerrero’s wife, Mucuy – and through Nachancán, Aguilar, Guerrero’s mother in Spain (whom I’ve called Alicia), and of course through Guerrero himself – to give both the inner and outer picture/story of this man, a people, and the times in which they lived.
.
Guerrero and Heart’s Blood was published in 1999 by Henning Bartsch, México City. Although I never had the theatre in mind when I was writing it, Guerrero has had a variety of stagings in both the U.S.A. and México.  Heart’s Blood is an accompanying story, told by Aguilar, and was performed in both Spanish and English in México as an adapted monologue by Alejandro Reza, with a score for cello by Vincent Carver Luke.  The translation into Spanish is by Lisa Primus.  My painting, on the cover of the original book, is called “Blood and Stone”.
.     .     .     .     .


Poems for Saint Patrick’s Day: favourites of “me Ma”

ZP_Eileen Thompson in 1948, not long after her arrival in Toronto from Belfast, Northern Ireland

ZP_Eileen Thompson in 1948, not long after her arrival in Toronto from Belfast, Northern Ireland_Now in her 80s she is an avid reader – still – and she has chosen the two poems we feature here.

Donal Og” / “Young Donald”

(from an old Irish Gaelic ballad, probably composed in the 10th century)

Translation by Augusta, Lady Gregory (1852-1932)

.

It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.
.
You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.
.
You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.
.
You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.
.
When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.
.
It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday.
And myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.
.
My mother said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.
.
My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you that put that darkness over my life.
.
You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!

ZP_Irish labourer_a photograph from around 1850

ZP_Irish labourer_a photograph from around 1850

 

Eavan Boland (born 1944, Dublin)

Quarantine”

.

In the worst hour of the worst season

of the worst year of a whole people

a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.

He was walking – they were both walking – north.

.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.

He lifted her and put her on his back.

He walked like that west and west and north.

Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

.

In the morning they were both found dead.

Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.

But her feet were held against his breastbone.

The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.

There is no place here for the inexact

praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.

There is only time for this merciless inventory:

.

Their death together in the winter of 1847.

Also what they suffered. How they lived.

And what there is between a man and woman.

And in which darkness it can best be proved.

.     .     .     .     .

ZP_The Jubilant Man, a sculpture by Rowan Gillespie at Ireland Park in Toronto_The Irish Potato Famine, known as An Gorta Mór or The Great Hunger, occurred between 1845 and 1852.  30,000 forced-out or fleeing Irish arrived in Toronto during 1847 alone - their numbers being greater than the actual population of Toronto at the time.

ZP_The Jubilant Man, a sculpture by Rowan Gillespie at Ireland Park in Toronto_The Irish Potato Famine, known as An Gorta Mór or The Great Hunger, occurred between 1845 and 1852. 30,000 forced-out or fleeing Irish arrived in Toronto during 1847 alone – their numbers being greater than the actual population of Toronto at the time.


Alexander Best: “Notes on Normal”

ZP_Norval Morrisseau, 1932-2007_Conversation, a serigraph from 1978

ZP_Norval Morrisseau, 1932-2007_Conversation, a serigraph from 1978

Alexander Best

“Notes on Normal”

.

The investment advertisement spoke of “smart risk”.

The sign on the bottled-water truck read: “Taste you can trust.”

At the townhouse complex, little notices

skewered the golf-green grass. They gave the date and time of

spraying and when the lawn would be “safe” again.

.

An office worker took two puffs of her cigarette then

tossed it onto the granite slab;  it was back to the salt mines.

Two beggars stood nearby.

It didn’t get ugly over the “Hollywood butt”;

another one would be along in awhile.

 

.     .     .

 

Last night I awoke;  it was slow and easy.

Down the hall, my neighbour picked out chords on his guitar.

The sound wasn’t loud;  the house was unusually quiet.

3 a.m.  Oh, but he hit the right notes!

I lay there and listened.

Then the music stopped.

.

My mind went this way and that.  Those years returned, and

I knew there was no playing with the facts:

how ignorant I’d been — aggressive and stupid.  And hadn’t it

gone on — and on.

Sleep came again, and took me.

 

.     .     .

 

Finally, he died.

Yes, he was old, but he’d been old for two-and-a-half decades,

since the age of forty-five.

The florid beard, silver in the black, had

given him a weight;  and he’d been listened to, the difficult

so-and-so.

.

His Uncle.  The only man left of that small,

snuffed-or-petered-out generation.

And these past five years, the beard gone, his face was

crunched and unintelligible.

.

What a waste.

So much could’ve happened that didn’t.

Yet so much had happened that had to.

And though he felt regret — fibrous and stony — he felt also

the uselessness of regrets.

.

That tightly-wound, far-flung bunch, their story was told.

And the estranged pair of them — Uncle and him —

they were one and complete.

 

.     .     .

 

I told someone off the other day, really laid it on thick.

She’d been burying me in bullshit for quite some time.

Who doesn’t she despise in our society?

.

Now I’m doubtful. I feel guilt. Was I perhaps too…

no, I didn’t go far enough.

 

.     .     .

 

Oh privileged people —

when you extract head from navel, the

muffled hums and haws will become

well-spoken excuses.

.

Shut up and get on with it.

I expect more of thee!

 

.     .     .

 

Smug. It defines him.

Orthodoxy in all the obvious opinions;  a crass certitude;

Hypocrisy. 

And in one so young!

.

Facts. What he does with them is…

terrifying.

.

But now I say to myself:

Fool.  Look around.

This  is the only world he knows.

 

.     .     .

 

He was mistaken.

He’d thought it sensible to share so much — to be ‘modern’ —

with the old dear / battleaxe who’d given him Life.

But he didn’t know when to stop.

And now they are both of them

undignified.

.

How does one repair such damage?

.

Learning to be silent,

this will be hard work.

But the birds, cat and dog;  the piano.

Maybe a ginger beer — she likes that —

in the backyard, when the hot days come.

It can be enough.

 

.     .     .

 

The funeral was a brisk affair;  the woman’s decline had been

gradual, her death no surprise. Still, the hour was a solemn one.

He was the brother of someone who’d known the deceased,

a stranger in a small congregation, all of whom appeared to

be familiars.  But afterward, he observed how

people departed in two distinct groups which had little or

nothing to say to one another.

.

His sister — the “someone who’d known the deceased” — was,

in truth, a very important person — mourner — in the pews.

But only the dead woman had known that.

.

Two square-looking, thirty-something women

— they’d sat in the front row —

attempted to pick him up as he

walked away from the cut-stone chapel.

One called him “distinguished”;  the other, “hot”.

The coffin was carried down the steps, and

dayglo arrows marked the route to the grave.

It was a cold, early-spring afternoon.

 

.     .     .

 

The dream startled me awake.

I had to walk around, move myself here and there.

Downstairs, I put the kettle on.

.

First I was hunched over, then I was on the attack.

A door, off its hinges, was my shield, then my weapon.

There was no ground yet we weren’t falling.

There was no sky yet we kept breathing.

There was no room for us, in fact,

yet we had ample space for a struggle.

And who was we?

 

 

.

(2004)

.     .     .     .     .


Les Tendresses pour Yonge Street ( Tokens of Affection for Yonge Street )

ZP_Corner of Yonge and Dundas, Toronto, 1972, looking south_The buildings on the right side were all demolished to make way for construction of The Eaton Centre which opened in 1977.

ZP_Corner of Yonge and Dundas, Toronto, 1972, looking south_The buildings on the right side were all demolished to make way for construction of The Eaton Centre which opened in 1977.

Alexander Best

LES TENDRESSES POUR YONGE STREET #1

( TOKENS OF AFFECTION FOR YONGE STREET…..)

.

Playoffs had begun; things were looking up for The Leafs…

Ten young guys, walking south to Carlton Street. Jock-ish

In their jerseys, ballcaps, space-age sneakers.

Cases of beer: treasure borne on shoulders and heads.

.

The creature of them halted in front of a shop-window: leopard-bikinis and

Lacey things. Big noise from the boys, sports-monkey-like.

.

Two teenage girls appeared on the sidewalk, slowing down, unsure.

(Awkward experiment: elegant hair, in the style of Marie-Antoinette, combined

with denim ensembles, ‘racing stripes’ down the sides of their pant-legs.)

.

The guys turned from window-display toward the girls, emitting a lusty

Oh Yeah!

One of the girls (shy one) couldn’t help but grin, showing

Microchip-circuitry of railroad-tracks; her mouth was a mess. The boys

Paused — taking in this ruination of her face — glanced among themselves,

Then voiced an even huge-r Oh Yeeaahhh of instinctual approval.

.

Girl’s friend rummaged for an itzy-bitzy disposable camera, held it out, simply

Aimed it at the mass of boys, and clicked.

Females, a-giggle, clumped north in their trendy ‘big-foot’ shoes. The

Manimal continued its way down the street.

.     .     .

 

LES TENDRESSES POUR YONGE STREET  #2

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.”  /  “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”

(Publius Terentius Afer  a.k.a. TerenceRoman playwright, 195–159 BCE)

.

I waited for the streetcar, in Monday’s midnight mist.

Cabbie pulled up, East-African guy, insisted I get in.

No money, I told him.  Shift was over, he said.  “You and I, we go in the

Same direction,” he assured me. Small as a boy, he was confident like a man.

.

Inside the car, passing the famous hockey-arena…

Do you know this is a ‘gay area’ where you are standing on the corner?”

Oh, really?” my mild response.

.

Left hand on the steering-wheel, he extended his right and placed the tips of his

Slim fingers on the vulnerable spot where my neck joins my breastbone.

Let me see you” — his tone was oddly reverential.

.

I unbuttoned my shirt. He ran his hand over my chest and stomach.

Ah,” he said gravely, “I am touching you, beautiful forest!”

The car skirted a grove of highrise apartment blocks, swinging onto the bridge that

Leads to a more sky-wide part of the city.

.

He patted my zipper: “Show me this one.”

He held my sex; it changed size. Chain of lights moved north, another south, on the

Riverside-highway below us. He considered me, in the palm of his hand:

Alabaster plus two jewels,” he said. “ — but not so hard!” he added, joy flashing in his

Eyes. Our road lay arrow-straight, and luck – the traffic was serene.

.

I began to touch him, at the navel-gap in his shirt.

No.  This cannot. I am married.” — he spoke in a hush.

Maybe I’m married, too,” I said. “You are wearing no ring,” he observed.

True.” And I touched him again.

.

Please do not,” he said firmly. Then, with a radiant smile showing teeth of

Stained ivory: “You will make us an accident…We must not have such a

Tragic romance!”

He refreshed me with these words. The car smelled of fake pine; radio-voice

Rhapsodized about a computer.

.

He caressed my thigh with his free hand. I told him my name; he, his; the

Bible came into it. When I was let out, he tapped a

Farewell-flourish on the car-horn.

.

A poet wrote: “It is only the sacred things that are worth touching.”

Thank you, stranger of the City, for revealing my body as sacred again.

In touching it you touched my soul.

ZP_Xaviera Hollander, the so-called Happy Hooker_She lived in Toronto during the mid-1970s and her liberated, guilt-free approach to sex was exactly what Toronto the Good needed_The Yonge Street Strip, mainly between Gerrard and Dundas, was the most honest zone in the city - a place of risqué fun and sleaze.  Some of those qualities of random adventure and weird spontaneity still existed on the Yonge Street of the late 1990s - and the poet hopes he has captured a little of that in these three poems...

ZP_Xaviera Hollander, the so-called Happy Hooker_She lived in Toronto during the mid-1970s and her liberated, guilt-free approach to sex was exactly what Toronto the Good needed_The Yonge Street Strip, mainly between Gerrard and Dundas, was the most honest zone in the city – a place of risqué fun and sleaze. Some of those qualities of random adventure and weird spontaneity still existed on the Yonge Street of the late 1990s – and the poet hopes he has captured a little of that in these three poems…

LES TENDRESSES POUR YONGE STREET  #3

.

It was along by the Zanzibar Tavern…

Delivery van struck a man. Soft-hard sound, and he

Flipped through the air as if juggled.

.

Magnificent. People spun ’round.

He wasn’t out-cold; dusted himself off, embarrassed.

He began to walk; straightaway teetered, fell

Crumpled against a newspaper box.

Blood on his neck; humanity gawked.

.

An efficient person called the hospital on his pocket-phone.

The van-driver was sorry, impatient.  

.

An old man and woman — he reedy, she petite — approached the  

Injured one: “What is your name, dear?” said the woman, bending.

What is my name? — What is my name?!?”

Don’t, now…you’ve had a shock,” she said.

.

The man’s accent was distinctive; words in the shape of fear.

He’d’ve hailed from a dozen lands — to be precise.

.

The woman gestured for her mate to lean down with his good ear:

He can stay with us…The children are gone — they needn’t know.”

Her husband’s eyebrows went up; held themselves aloft; settled down.

Yes…I don’t see why not.”

 .

The nameless fellow was arranged into the ambulance by two delicate,

Burly attendants. The couple was helped in next; one guy taking the

Old lady’s patent-leather handbag, the other the

Old gentleman’s cane.

.

(1999 – 2000)

ZP_Yonge Street, Toronto, in the 21st century_Looking south from the corner of Yonge and Gerrard

ZP_Yonge Street, Toronto, in the 21st century_Looking south from the corner of Yonge and Gerrard


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