Rule-defiant poetry cuts to the core of an eating disorder

Depending on where we are on our eating disorder (ED) recovery journey, we will respond differently to the poems or stories that we read. When our ED is loud and raging, we will be drawn to, and love, everything that paints ED as the powerful one. Such is the magnetism of ED, we will read, think, and feel through ED’s lens only. When we are beginning to reconnect and regain our authentic voice, we will look for, be drawn to, and love  everything that nurtures and strengthens our healthy self, and puts ED in a diminishing light.

When we have an ED, our take-away messages upon reading a poem or story can be completely different when read again several months later. There is no right or wrong response. As a reader, our perception is shaped by the dominant influence, (ED or our healthy self), in our mind at the time. Likewise, there is no right or wrong way, as a writer, to express ourselves in a poem or in prose about our experience at any given time. How we write today is how our story is, how we feel and think, at this point in time. Tomorrow, the way we express our story, our truth as we see it, is likely to be different and that will be okay and proper, too.

Benefits in sharing with like-minded others in a supportive environment

Importantly, when we release and express our experience, in poem or prose, (see Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders) there are benefits in sharing our writing with like-minded others in a supportive and understanding environment. For instance, asTanya notes (below), poetry has the power to question, to challenge and to dare.

During the ups and downs of the COVID-19 global pandemic, poetry has enabled a network of women with anorexia to stay connected, feel emboldened, and uplifted. The women share their verse with others who are experiencing self-torture and feelings of inadequacy in the face of widespread ideas of what humans ‘should be’.

I learnt about this sharing of poetry when Kitty Thatcher and I met through mutual friend and mentor, David Epston. David was keen to extend and expand the anti anorexic network, that he had helped to establish, stretching from Brazil to Chile, to Australia. This post is the second part of a poetry exploration that began last week.

Kitty writes:

Why poetry? Poetry cuts to the heart of things that people experience and doesn’t mind odd ways of writing (in fact can embrace it!) as a way of articulating those experiences. Poetry doesn’t care much about punctuation or grammar. In this way, as an art form, poetry is itself quite anti-anorexic because it defies standards and expectations that other forms of writing must abide by in order to be accepted. For instance, right now I could write in paragraphs to explain my love of poetry and why I think it is important … or I could simply write:

Fellow human

Read this poem

A window to my world

Inglorious, joyful, sad…

Do you see your world reflected here?

Or some shadow of it?

Not yet?

Keep reading then for when you do

You’ll feel the doorways to our worlds

melt away

And you’ll know 

We share the same kingdom

Meet new poets, Fal and Mabel

Kitty continues:

Now, I am delighted to introduce two new poets to The Diary Healer community. Fal, who lives in regional NSW, has been exchanging anti anorexic poetry with Mabel, who lives in Melbourne, Victoria, for many months. The Devil is a poem that describes anorexia as a manipulative mutating entity in which the struggle to retain one’s sense of self and values engages the reader from the very beginning. In response to this poem, Fal wrote Pride in Deeper Beauties which speaks to the dilemma of looking into a mirror clouded by 21st century perceptions, and the courage it takes to look again with fresh eyes.

The poets share their writing in the knowledge that their experiences might resonate with others who are resisting constant appraisal and self-torture. The poets hope that their publication sparks many conversations and responses among readers about what it’s like to resist the call to perfection and the empty promises of an insidious witch.

The Devil

by Mabel

I am not a religious creature.

Faith is solely 2 vowels,

and 3 consonants.

It contains no weight,

no command,

no certitude,

no comfort.

Although,

I know of the devil.

Horns don’t adorn its incandescent crown.

There is no tail, hog like and cerise.

It does not abide within flames and ash and coal.

She isn’t always tangible,

more of a tantalising torturer.

An ideal, immortalised,

but a perpetual mutator.

Her form varies in more untold ways,

than the amount of cells in our decaying frame.

Obsession, however, is at her core

and its fucking fatiguing to catch her presence,

her presence in the senses of the vulnerable.

Once she has infiltrated your thoughts,

read the tales of your forlorn past,

and promised to you,

that human necessities are an abysmal thirst.

A curse, bestowed.

One begins a chase,

and the feat, to a mirror her entirety,

fearlessly,

flawlessly.

We attempt, painfully, to embody her beauty.

How she eats,

how she drinks,

how she lives.

She is the gauntest entity to inhabit this planet.

A skeleton with skin.

Arms like nan’s knitting,

you can see every stitch.

Bones protruding, just severing her pallid peel,

teasing the sky.

Bruises litter, splotches of long, black coffee.

Hair, thread like, if visible at all.

Eyes, submerged, sunken by the bulbous cheeks.

Tallows frail and nibbled red raw.

Were lucky to indulge in the morsels of a fingernail.

She has no companion,

no lover.

Alone, cold, sore, wearied.

But doesn’t she look magnificent?

Her ideals, this ideal, transcends reality,

and what’s after this reality?

It’s a truth.

It’s the void of death and our weeping mothers.

But her beckoning incessant…

I hate her name,

Anorexia Nervosa.

A name so sour,

I haven’t tasted something sweet in so long.

 

Pride of Deeper Beauties – An Exploration

by Fal

I looked in the mirror and deceit looked back,

an evil witch obscuring my reflection with punishment.

She whispered a promise of perfection to my naivete,

a nightmare in disguise that I fell in love and loyalty with.

A promise of worthiness

if the unworthy she made so clear and so obvious, was banished.

Yet change was to avail averse her unchanged script,

her incessantly cruel and impatiently unattainable standards.

“If you are not this, you will amount nothing.”

I chewed my mouth dry searching for beauty in that mirror,

nothing but a structure of bones, blood, and organs

deemed not worthy as they looked back.

A search so notorious the mirror became intolerable.

and the search taken elsewhere found a realisation;

the mirror and therefore the witch,

see only the ephemeral delicacy of what is reflected on the surface,

the very outside, micro manipulating perception.

To that I say, there are deeper beauties.

Beauties that push the boundaries of normality,

of which the world that does not see, will tell you isn’t there,

and not to look for “one is but a mere reflection in a mirror, can’t you see?”

While a beautiful wonder it is,

regardless of a world’s whispered unworthiness,

there is substantially more;

a mysteriously alluring land afar the bounds of outward form,

an incalculable, bottomless ocean below the surface of expression

and the voluminous truth beyond the lying tip of an iceberg that is impression.

My search elsewhere found the constant desire to change and be ‘better,’

without temperance,

devouring my present, my empowerment, and my self-worth.

But this is the witch, desperate to stay alive and ravage.

Hungry, in her many deceitful forms,

whispering false protection from the past and world.

Disempowered once her illusion has been realised,

allowing deeper beauties an option and

appreciation of fortitude, of survival,

even her efforts to protect, so insecure and unsafe.

It takes a lot of courage to face the mirror again,

and then some to have the generosity

of looking to see yourself for the first time,

rather a portal of flaws to a dishonest idea of something ‘better.’

In my reflection I found it’s not about being better, striving for more,

learning to be perfect, the perfect friend, or even seeking.

It’s about considering ‘imperfection’ wonderful too.

It takes courage to walk around with your head held high,

in pride and joy of imperfection.

To be an imperfectionist,

in the crux of a perfectionist world.

To that I say, IS a deeper beauty,

a magnificence.

In utmost modesty, I’m done striving for and pretending I’m, perfect

Connecting and finding self-understanding through poetry and story-telling

Tanya, who has anorexia nervosa, finds writing with guidance from a narrative mentor helpful in developing her healthy self and improving her life quality. (See The Diary Healer, October 21, 2021 When an eating disorder provides a way to cope with grief). Here, Tanya shares her impressions upon reading The Devil and Pride of Deeper Beauties – an Exploration.

Tanya’s review of  The Devil

Mabel’s poem links the writer, and in turn all women suffering from anorexia, with the devil. I find this highly descriptive poem, using metaphoric and emotive language, to be intense and confronting. The depictions of the devil, and anorexia’s similarities to her, are grim, blunt and shocking – though I might have assumed as much from the poem’s title. This is no sugar-coated Pollyanna-type of message from Mabel, not a pretty poem. Rather, the poem is dark and direct, elevating the devil over faith within the first nine lines – “(Faith has) no comfort”…/ “I know of the devil.”

Mabel’s description of the devil as “a tantalising torturer” (“tendador torturador” / “provocate torturadora”) with its alliteration of short, harsh consonants, gives it a thudding, almost spitting type of emphasis. The devil is the “mutator”, “the gauntest entity”, “a skeleton with skin” – the letters “t”, “k” and “s” effectively repeated. The image of anorexia as a manipulative mutating entity really resonates with me when I think back to myself at my sickest. At that time, anorexia had morphed into a bossy, conniving monster that changed shape constantly, pulling me into its snare, as I became sicker, gaunter, and more skeletal.

Preconceived notions of the devil as a “he,” are challenged

Interestingly, Mabel refers to the devil in the feminine. This shocks me into attention and my preconceived notions of the devil as a “he,” are challenged. Being so strong, I always view my anorexia as masculine. I think that, as a woman, however, I naturally tend to side with anything or anyone feminine – I have that innate bias – so to read of Mabel’s depiction of anorexia/the devil as feminine is profoundly confronting and yet somehow reassuring. Paradoxically, the effect of this is to allow me, as someone who suffers from anorexia, to further identify with the devil – if the devil is a “she.” I feel a sense of solidarity in Mabel’s use of the inclusive pronoun “we,” and “we’re” as well as the pronouns “you” and “your.” Interestingly, Mabel only uses the “I” pronoun to start and finish the poem. Mabel’s use of collective pronouns connects me the universal plight of women enduring anorexia and in doing so, validates my illness and somewhat relieves me – that there are other women, everywhere, who suffer as I do.

Overall, I sense a precarious balance between wanting to be like the devil and yet feeling like the victim. On the one hand, the devil is “flawless” and “an ideal” having the quality of “beauty.” Contrarily, the devil is painted as a “torturer,” a “mutator,” like an infiltrator who has taken over my body – “her beckoning incessant.” I am the “vulnerable,” a victim of the devil/anorexia upon whom “a curse (is) bestowed” and I am powerless to fight it. As such, I am at the devil’s mercy, “alone, cold, sore, wearied” with “a decaying frame” and so the devil remains somewhat elusive – Mabel laments, it’s so “fucking fatiguing to catch her presence.” This curious juxtaposition reflects my own ambivalence towards my illness as I too fluctuate between wanting the anorexia – admiring it, liking it, revelling in it – and not wanting it – shunning it, feeling embarrassed by it, feeling ashamed by it.

Finally, Mabel asserts:

I hate her name,
Anorexia Nervosa.
A name so sour.

With these three succinct lines, I am left with Mabel’s view of not just feeling helplessness, but of harbouring pure hatred. The irony perhaps then, is that even though I aspire to take her shape, moulding my sickly, starved body to the devil’s form, I nevertheless can’t help myself. Despite – or perhaps because of – my bones, skeletal frame, bruises, thinning hair, sunken eyes and frail nails, I still see the devil as the “ideal.” I am at the mercy of an illness that is at once alluring and despicable.

The poem leaves me with a multitude of feelings. I feel united with Mabel’s vulnerability at the devil’s hands but, unlike Mabel, I cannot yet bring myself to “hate her name.” It is actually rare for me to hate my illness. It is also rare for me to view myself completely at the mercy of the illness – my belief being for many years now ‘that I am anorexia’ – as opposed to ‘I have anorexia.’ Despite this point of difference, most of the poet’s words did resonate with me and deeply move me, so accurate and illuminating were her descriptions and analysis of anorexia as the devil.

Tanya’s review of Pride of Deeper Beauties – An Exploration

When I began reading Pride of Deeper Beauties by Fal, I felt slapped with the same heavy overtones of negativity – Fal’s witch has an “intolerable” visage and is a “nightmare” to look upon. She is portrayed as “incessantly cruel,” “hungry, in her many deceitful forms” whose sole purpose is “to ravage.”  Fal’s evil witch portrays the witch as hideous, cheerless and capable of appalling, horrible deeds. Like Mabel in her poem, Fal uses the mirror as a vehicle through which to view herself.

From reading this poem, I recognise that I have also felt at the mercy of my anorexia, at least in the beginnings of my illness, and that I was lured by the witch/devil into my eating disorder – like there is a manipulative pull, a type of magnetism, that caused me to succumb. But whereas Fal is at the point on her illness journey where she feels unworthy and feels like nothing, regarded by the rest of the world as “a world’s whispered unworthiness,” I currently have a more positive sense of identity. I do not feel worthless or that I am not good enough, incongruous though this might seem with any conventional sense of anorexia as being caused by feelings of inadequacy.

As the witch affirms, “if you are not this, you will amount to nothing,” exuding a sense of power over the “naiveté” of the poet. With the temptation to remain a victim, I identify with the feeling that Fal must succumb – the witch makes promises and whispers into her ear, almost like a lover (Fal uses the verb ‘whispers’ three times in her poem).

Fal manages to thwart the witch/anorexia of her poem and comes to view her nightmare as a nothing more than a “disguise.” This insight does resonate with me, for while I don’t feel worthless or inadequate, I have nevertheless floundered at times with a solid sense of self, struggling to connect to my beliefs and values. Such is the power anorexia can have over one.

The witch starts out as underhanded and sneaky “obscuring (Fal’s) reflection” but by the end of the poem, Fal “disempowers” her and breaks the “illusion” of her nightmare. While Fal concedes that she herself is “a structure of bones, blood, and organs” – lines reminiscent of Mabel’s view of herself as nothing but cells, skin and bone – she finds “a realisation” that totally shifts her perspective. Fal finds her anorexia (as the witch) “insecure and unsafe.” Contrarily, these days I find my own anorexia a safe, comforting place wherein I am fully myself – though admittedly, this has not always been the case. At its worst, anorexia has made me feel lost, abandoned and, like Fal, it has presented as an obstacle to peace and security.

‘…I am like a pendulum – swinging back and forth between not liking my gaunt appearance and loving it’

Once Fal admits to finding her reflection in the mirror as a witch as “intolerable”, she shifts “elsewhere” as she finds a sudden “realisation.” Indeed, the next 12 lines of the poem are devoted to metaphors that depict the dichotomy of the outer self (the anorexic skin-and-bone persona) versus the inner self (with all its potential for “beautiful wonder”). My reaction to this passage is somewhat complicated. Personally, I am more like a pendulum – swinging back and forth between not liking my gaunt appearance and loving it, between thinking that I already have that “beautiful wonder” and wondering if I could be so much more/live so much more joyously.

Fal finds “a deeper beauty” and a “magnificence” when she is able to look beyond the haggardness of the illness/witch. More than this, she discovers that “there is substantially more” – and if I look hard enough, I agree/disagree there is “the voluminous truth beyond” the reflection in the mirror. This is fortifying and offers hope as a possible salvation to her plight. As the reader, I can feel her desire to triumph (even if I don’t always share this desire personally) – her “constant desire to change and be ‘better’.” Fal’s language changes in the second half of her poem. Gone are the negative connotations of harsh adjectives and metaphors – now I read of beauty, wonder and magnificence, of “a mysteriously alluring land afar the bounds of outward form.” I do not readily identify with this because I believe that life necessitates a balance between the good and the bad, between the ugliness and the beauty, and that the human struggle is an essential part of this equilibrium. Unlike Fal, I am currently unable to reach a point where I think there is an existence waiting for me beyond anorexia – and that this existence might reach the realms of some blissful and wonderful order.

‘…just maybe – there is more for me than the point of comfortability and acceptance to which I seem to have arrived at with my illness’

Fal gathers her courage and fortitude to “face the mirror again” and to look “to see yourself for the first time/ rather a portal of flaws to a dishonest idea of something ‘better.’” In doing so, I envisage Fal rising in her estimation of herself, empowering herself (and thereby “disempowering” the witch) to embrace imperfection – “It’s about considering ‘imperfection’ wonderful too” she writes in the last few lines. In Fal’s ultimate defiance of anorexia, she seeks to conquer the nightmare of her anorexia and defeat the witch – the negative is superseded by the positive, good triumphs over evil.

While I can feel happy for Fal in her ultimate realisations, unfortunately I struggle to share her concluding optimism. Perhaps I am just a more cynical human being which perhaps says a lot about how I envisage my own sense of self and the world around me. If I really try to unravel my feelings about Fal’s final defiance of anorexia, I realise that I feel jealous of the revelations Fal has had. Because of this, on the one hand I feel a little defeated by the conclusion to her poem; on the other hand, I feel that maybe – just maybe – there is more for me than the point of comfortability and acceptance to which I seem to have arrived at with my illness.

Poetry has the power to question, challenge and dare

Despite Tanya’s contrariness, she can appreciate that Fal has provoked doubt and perplexity within her and Tanya attests:

“This is good, because this is what poetry has the power to do – to question, to challenge and to dare. And in achieving this response in me, I am thankful to both Mabel and Fal for these two poems.”

  • If you have a poem or story to share, submit the contact form on The Diary Healer or write to june@junealexander.com
El diablo por Mabel

No soy una criatura religiosa.

En inglés ‘faith’ (La fe) tiene solo 2 sílabas,

y 3 consonantes.

No contiene peso,

en comando,

en el certificado,

sin consuelo

aunque,

Sé del diablo.

Cuernos no adornan su corona incandescente.

No tiene cola, como cerdo y cereza.

No mora entre llamas, cenizas y carbón.

Ella no siempre es tangible,

más de un tentador torturador.

Una ideal, inmortalizada,

Además- una mutadora perpetua.

Su forma varía en formas más incalculables,

que la cantidad de células en nuestro cuerpo en descomposición.

La obsesión, sin embargo, está en su núcleo.

y es jodidamente fatigoso captar su presencia,

su presencia en los sentidos de los vulnerables.

Una vez que se ha infiltrado en tus pensamientos,

lee las historias de tu triste pasado,

y te prometí,

que las necesidades humanas son una sed abismal.

Una maldición, otorgada.

uno comienza una persecución,

y la hazaña, a un espejo su totalidad,

sin miedo,

impecablemente

Intentamos, dolorosamente, encarnar su belleza.

como come,

como bebe,

como ella vive

Ella es la entidad más demacrada que habita este planeta.

Un esqueleto con piel.

brazos como tejer nans,

Puedes ver cada puntada.

Huesos que sobresalen, acabando de cortar su piel pálida,

burlándose del cielo.

Arena para magulladuras, manchas de café largo y negro.

Cabello, como un hilo, si es visible.

Ojos, sumergidos, hundidos por las mejillas bulbosas.

Sebos rojos frágiles y mordisqueados crudos.

Tuvimos la suerte de disfrutar de los bocados de una uña.

no tiene compañera,

en amante

Solo, frío, dolorido, cansado.

¿Pero no se ve magnífica?

Sus ideales, este ideal, trasciende la realidad,

y que hay despues de esta realidad?

Es la verdad.

Es el vacío de la muerte y nuestras madres que lloran.

Pero su llamada incesante…

Odio su nombre,

Anorexia nerviosa.

Un nombre es amargo,

Hace mucho que no he probado algo dulce.

O Diabo, por Mabel

Não sou uma criatura religiosa.

Fé tem apenas uma vogal

E uma consoante.

Ela não contém peso,

ou comando,

ou certeza,

ou conforto.

Todavia,

Eu conheço o diabo.

Chifres não adornam sua coroa incandescente.

Não há uma cauda, suína ou vermelha.

Não habita entre as labaredas e o carvão.

Ela não é sempre tangível,

É mais uma provocante torturadora.

Um ideal, imortalizado,

Mas perpetuamente mutante.

Suas formas variam em mais formas inauditas,

Do que temos células em nossas formas decadentes

A obsessão, no entanto, está em seu cerne

E é muito exaustivo captar sua presença,

Sua presença nos sentidos de quem está vulnerável.

Uma vez que ela tenha infiltrado seus pensamentos,

Lido as histórias do passado perdido,

E lhe prometido,

Que as necessidades humanas são uma sede abismal.

Uma maldição foi jogada.

Se principia uma busca,

E o feito, espelhar sua inteireza,

Sem medo,

Sem falha.

Tentamos, dolorosamente, corporificar sua beleza.

Como ela come,

Como ela bebe,

Como ela vive.

Ela é a criatura mais esquálida a habitar este planeta.

Um esqueleto com pele.

Os braços como o tricô da avó,

Você pode ver cada ponto.

Os ossos saltando, rompendo sua pálida casca,

Provocando o céu.

Hematomas se acumulam, manchas de longo café preto.

Cabelo, como fiapos, se chegam a ser visíveis.

Olhos submersos, afundados por bochechas bulbosas.

Sebos frágeis e roídos até a carne.

Temos sorte de usufruir das migalhas de uma unha.

Ela não tem companheiros,

Nenhum amante.

Só, fria, ferida, gasta.

Mas ela não tem uma aparência magnífica?

Seus ideais, este ideal, transcende a realidade,

E o que há depois desta realidade?

Uma verdade.

É o vazio da morte e do pranto de nossas mães.

Mas seu chamado é incessante…

Eu odeio o nome dela,

Anorexia Nervosa.

Um nome tão amargo,

E há tanto tempo eu não saboreio nada doce.

orgullo en bellezas más profundas

Por Fal

Me miré al espejo y el engaño me devolvió la mirada,

una bruja malvada oscureciendo mi reflejo con castigo.

Ella susurró una promesa de perfección a mi ingenuidad,

una pesadilla disfrazada de la que me enamoré y fidelicé.

La promesa de dignidad

si lo indigno lo hizo tan claro y tan obvio, fue desterrado.

Sin embargo, el cambio fue para aprovechar su guión sin cambios,

sus estándares incesantemente crueles e impacientemente inalcanzables.

“Si no eres esto, no valdrás nada”.

Mastiqué mi boca seca buscando la belleza en ese espejo,

nada más que la estructura de los huesos, la sangre y los órganos

no digno como ellos miraron hacia atrás considerado.

La búsqueda tan notoria que el espejo se volvió intolerable.

y la búsqueda llevada a otra parte encontró la realización;

el espejo y por lo tanto la bruja,

ver sólo la delicadeza efímera de lo que se refleja en la superficie,

el mismo exterior, micro manipulando la percepción.

A eso digo, hay bellezas más profundas.

Bellezas que empujan los límites de la normalidad,

de la cual el mundo que no ve, os dirá que no está,

y no buscar “uno no es más que un mero reflejo en un espejo, ¿no ves?”

Si bien es una hermosa maravilla,

independientemente de la indignidad del aliento de un mundo,

en su mayoría hay más;

una tierra misteriosamente seductora lejos de los límites de la forma exterior,

un océano incalculable y sin fondo debajo de la superficie de la expresión

y la verdad voluminosa más allá de la punta mentirosa de un iceberg que es la impresión.

Mi búsqueda en otra parte encontró el deseo constante de cambiar y ser ‘mejor’,

sin templanza,

devorando mi presente, mi empoderamiento y mi autoestima.

Pero esta es la bruja, desesperada por mantenerse con vida y arrasar.

Hambre, en sus muchas formas engañosas,

susurrando falsa protección del pasado y del mundo.

Sin poder una vez que su ilusión se ha realizado,

permitiendo bellezas más profundas una opción y

apreciación de la fortaleza, de la supervivencia,

incluso sus esfuerzos por proteger, tan inseguros e inseguros.

Se necesita mucho coraje para volver a mirarse al espejo,

y luego algunos para tener la generosidad

de mirar para verte por primera vez,

más bien un portal de fallas a una idea deshonesta de algo ‘mejor’.

En mi reflexión encontré que no se trata de ser mejor, esforzarse por más,

aprender a ser perfecto, el amigo perfecto, o incluso buscar.

Se trata de considerar maravillosa la ‘imperfección’ también.

Se necesita coraje para caminar con la frente en alto,

en el orgullo y la alegría de la imperfección.

Ser un imperfeccionista,

en el quid de un mundo perfeccionista.

A eso digo, ES una belleza más profunda,

la magnificencia

Con la mayor modestia, he terminado de esforzarme y fingir que soy, perfecto

About June Alexander

As founder of The Diary Healer my prime motivation is to connect with people who have experienced an eating disorder, trauma or other mental health challenge, and provide inspiration through the narrative, to live a full and meaningful life. My nine books about eating disorders focus on learning through story-sharing. Prior to writing books, which include my memoir, I had a long career in print journalism. In 2017, I graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing), researching the usefulness of journaling and writing when recovering from an eating disorder or other traumatic experience.
Today I combine my writing expertise with life experience to help others self-heal. Clients receive mentoring in narrative techniques and guidance in memoir-writing. I also share my editing expertise with people who are writing their story and wish to prepare it to publication standard. I encourage everyone to write their story. Your story counts!
Contact me: Email june@junealexander.com and on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.

All articles by June Alexander

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