Muriel Rukeyser as Major Figure: Imaginative Poetics as Praxis

Khadijah Queen
drawing of Muriel Rukeyser by Khadijah Queen

drawing of Muriel Rukeyser by Khadijah Queen

I first encountered the essays of The Life of Poetry in my mid-twenties, just as I started to write poetry. Re-encountering her during doctoral study helped plant the seeds and offer a blueprint for my dissertation, along with its underlying premise: that a poet can indeed write literary theory that is accessible and useful. Adrienne Rich writes in the foreword to A Muriel Rukeyser Reader that she “was beyond her time—and seems, at the edge of the twenty-first century, to have grasped resources we are only now beginning to reach for: connections between history and the body, memory and politics, sexuality and public space, poetry and physical science, and much else” (xi). At a time when, globally, nations and populations hover at the fissure between violent intolerance and radical inclusivity, her work is ripe for a heightened attention that positions her work for greater appreciation and influence.

Rukeyser was certainly not unknown in her lifetime. Scholar Dara Barnat notes that “Rukeyser is one of the most pioneering, prolific poets of the twentieth century [...] The extent of her influence is embodied by [poet Anne] Sexton’s oft-mentioned claim that Rukeyser is the ‘mother of everyone’” (96). She received numerous prestigious writing awards during her career, which spanned nearly five decades—starting at age 21 with the Yale Younger Poets Prize for her first book in 1935, and later a Guggenheim fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Award, and many others. Her biographies of Thomas Hariot, Wendell Willkie and Willard Gibbs received positive critical attention, and her books of poetry were often reviewed, if not always favorably—indeed, “Rukeyser’s work attracted slashing hostility and scorn (of a kind that suggests just how unsettling her work and her example could be) but also honor and praise” (xiii).

Rukeyser tended to write fervently about human possibility—all with an unusually tight focus on the image (poetic, cinematic and photographic) and the imagination; the unity of nature, humanity and the cosmos; love and friendship; the rejection of fear; overcoming failure; and attempting to move beyond social constraints such as race and class and gender. Though she did not fully move beyond those constraints herself, Rukeyser’s bold insistence on addressing such thorny issues make her a trailblazer and major figure in 20th-century poetry and poetics. As Rich observes:

[S]he spoke also as a thinking activist, biographer, traveler, explorer of her country’s psychic geography [...and] understood herself as living in history—not as static pattern but as a confluence of dynamic currents, always changing yet faithful to sources, a fluid process which is constantly shaping us and which we have the possibility of shaping. (xi)

Rukeyser’s passion for delivering craft and content which embody such possibility is matched only by her courage as a writer and a person, pioneering a unique documentary style that blends genres in honest and compelling ways that make her a definitively major literary figure.

Critics at times perceived her passion as sentimentality and naiveté, her style as either too simple or too convoluted and uneven, her content as strange and didactic. I disagree. She is earnest, in a cynical field and world; she is also hopeful, and bold enough in that hopefulness to push for accuracy and action. Her undeniable dedication to social change lasted until her death, even if she failed to succeed in tangible ways like policy shifts. A careful reading of her work reveals that her approach to race, like Whitman and Melville, still often operates from a position of white supremacy, whether the assumption of that position is intentional/conscious or not. But, rather than dismiss her contributions as a result of such perceived and/or actual failures and failings—failure being another subject she addresses from the perspective of its value—we can study and learn from it. Further, that Rukeyser’s intellectual curiosity leapt across genre limitations to produce a body of work that could be characterized as a philosophy of the imagination—an ambitious, powerful and valuable undertaking. Indeed, Rukeyser’s thematic consistency over dozens of books of poetry, prose and even juvenile literature, but perhaps most of all “how early she embraced the realm of the technological and scientific imagination” (xii) could classify her as more of a philosopher than a poet, demonstrating both the meagerness of labels and the expansiveness of her gifts.

The Life of Poetry perhaps offers the most conclusive proof of that proposition. First published in 1949, reprinted in 1974 and again in 1996, sixteen years after her death in 1980, the essays show poetics as an imaginative and intellectual practice. Jan Freeman, in the foreword to the latest printing, calls it “a book that breaks boundaries and assumptions about the place of literature and the arts in American life” (ix). Rukeyser presents poetry as integral to a full human experience, decrying the invasion of fear and exactitude into the study and teaching of poetry. She “suggests that by living with the senses and the imagination open, living with poetry, human beings can prosper and attain peace” (ix). The book spends a lot of time defining poetry and its place in the world, its power and potential, with those ideas in mind. Beginning by laying out resistances to poetry and admonishments against fear, Rukeyser argues that poetry’s value is on par with that of the sciences, and further, that poetry and science are not as far apart as it may seem on the surface, citing the inquiry, imagination and feeling involved in both (80). When it comes to form, freedom is paramount, and she maintains the language of science: “The form and music of fine poems are organic, they are not frames. They follow the laws of organic growth” (30). Freedom, growth and imagination are connected: “The security of the imagination lies in calling, all our lives, for more liberty, more rebellion, more belief. As far as we do that, our culture is alive” (30). More than anything, The Life of Poetry guides us to live with poetry, to use it as a way to make us more fully ourselves.

Savage Coast, a novel based on her travels to Spain to cover the People’s Olympiad in 1936, spotlights people who might otherwise serve as silent background, its voluminous dialogue demonstrating the aliveness of many cultures. Set almost entirely on a moving train during the Spanish Civil War, the novel carries the reader through a turbulent landscape to arrive at a character evolution for the protagonist, Helen, that feels as ongoing as wars, a counterforce of love and imagination. The novel ends: “Going on now. Running, running, today” (298), in line with Rukeyser’s obsessions—continuity, presence, flow, moving forward despite the circumstances.

Unpublished until 2013 and considered unfinished, the novel’s editor Rowena Kennedy Epstein notes in the introduction that the experience-based work “was brutally panned [...], rejected by her editor [...] for being, among other things, ‘BAD’ and ‘a waste of time,’ with a protagonist who is ‘too abnormal for us to respect.’ [...] It was eventually misfiled in an unmarked and undated folder in the Library of Congress” (x). In “‘Her Symbol Was Civil War’: Recovering Muriel Rukeyser’s Lost Spanish Civil War Novel,” Kennedy-Epstein further writes: “The rejection of the novel highlights the constraints and expectations of women's writing in the 1930s and 1940s, under which women were often lauded for their smallness and modesty” (419). The bold sweep of Savage Coast stood in direct contrast to such expectations, and its challenging prose met with distaste and confusion: “the contemporary reader found the hybridity of such a work illegible, and particularly the gender transgression implicit in its experimental intertwining of the quest narrative, the romantic plot, radical politics, and the epic impulse” (419). While the novel’s difficulty is undeniable, it is no more so than any other modernist novel, though her perspective is much more expansive than the usual Bildungsroman, as Helen’s personal struggle is caught up in the lives and struggles of those around her: “The more Helen participates in the resistance, the more she becomes herself” (Rukeyser xxx). Her work widens the narrative field, pushing the boundaries of both form and content in ways that bear greater acknowledgement.

Muriel Rukeyser “challeng[ed] the kinds of histories that privileged certain narratives over others, and saw the need to archive, document, and secure in test the stories of those who had been left out of master narrative—particularly the exiled, women, and refugees” (xi). In so doing, Rukeyser did not escape or shy away from white men, but highlighted those men who also bucked convention, writing biographies of those whose overlooked significance made them rather unsung heroes in her eyes, chronicling how their steadfast work ethic alongside powerful innovation and imagination was either treated with hostility or ignored in their time. Rukeyser champions the effort alongside the accomplishment, the intention alongside the execution. Due to the space constraints of this essay, I won’t go into depth about them, but worth mentioning is how 16th-century scientist Thomas Hariot’s career trajectory seems to mirror Rukeyser’s somewhat, with his “traces” in science akin to her status in poetry, of being “read and admired in pieces” (xiii).

When it comes to her poetry, science and the imagination figure prominently—as much as social justice issues; one could even argue that Rukeyser connects the two. All of her books address social issues, reflecting how Rich describes Rukeyser in citing her arrests as a journalist in Spain, Alabama and West Virginia, in Vietnam and South Korea, covering unjust treatment of African-Americans, workers, and other oppressed people: “she was by nature a participant, as well as an inspired observer, and the risk-taking of one who trusted the unexpected, the fortuitous without relinquishing choice or sense of direction” (Levi xii). But the work was not only content-driven. Rich again points out Rukeyser’s imagination extended to form and genre as well: “we are trapped in ideas of genre that Rukeyser was untroubled by […] We call her prose ‘poetic’ without referring to her own definitions of what poetry actually is—an exchange of energy, a system of relationships” (xiii, emphasis Rich’s).

Even in minor works, Rukeyser maintains the same message of openness and relational energy. Like the full-length 1948 collection The Green Wave, her chapbook The Outer Banks uses island and sea metaphors to present the notion of an open self—an open way of being that shifts, through a litany of elemental images and approaching actions, the notion that time and creation have set definitions. The images in The Outer Banks embody a relational (not one-way) exchange of energy through movement, a constant flow of defiance and questioning, not just mere existence. Once again she uses motifs of race to depict the relational:

He walks toward me. A black man in the sun,
He is now a black man speaking to my heart
crisis of darkness in this century
of moments of speech (VIII)

Importantly as well, Rukeyser uses language of vocalization (“speaking,” “moments of speech,”) just as “the dark young living people” use song—an art form that is both physical and emotional. And, following those lines, “Women, ships, lost voices,” as if what was lost (voice) must be recovered, can and will be recovered by the living who defy the guardians (XI). Indeed those “lost voices” are “moving, calling you / on the edge of the moment that is now the center. / From the open sea” (XII).

The vastness of the sea at times turns violent, and yet remembrance calls back through light: “Sea-light flame on my voice /      burn in me” (I). One might call this a naïve or utopian poem in the vein of Whitman, with his exuberant praise—at least message-wise. But she holds a Melvillian darkness as well, not ignoring the landscape’s destructiveness: “to the depth turbulence / lifts up its wavelike cities / the ocean in the air / spills down the world” (V). Rukeyser synthesizes the tendencies of both writers, repeating images of origins within moments in time, writing new beginnings in ways that feel infinite—as in, she can keep going infinitely. That act carries with it the power to change things—in particular modes of thinking and behaving which do not respect the living (human, animal, ecosphere). Hers is an encompassing poetics, capturing aliveness in a body relationally depicted: “They are in me, in my speechless life / of barrier beach” (XI). Rukeyser rejects separation: “There is no out there. All is open. Open water. Open I” (XI). At a time now when the humanist imperative for writers and global citizens is to understand the varying experiences of our fellow living creatures, Rukeyser’s work feels particularly relevant. Her earnestness invites us to abandon cynicism, to embrace imagination and the conversation it creates, to deepen our relationship with the world around us.

Yet, she is not naïve in her exuberance; she still occasionally holds a note of reproach and a tone of lambast. The Gates, her last book of poetry before releasing The Collected Poems, perhaps characterizes her as too prickly for canonization, too problematic. She refuses to shy away from difficult topics, especially what she witnesses outside of whiteness. In “Burnishing, Oakland,” she describes a man at work in a shipyard, “holding a heavy weight / on the end of a weighted boom / counterbalanced” (71)—a clear metaphor for the balancing weight of justice. She uses the act of burnishing—“high scream of burnishing / a path of brightness” as a scene of building, making, maintaining—while presumably police surveillance of and perhaps impending violence toward black people occurs nearby, “outside,” the tension kept from exploding because “Panther cars” surveil the police right back (71). The following stanza holds some mystery:

Statement of light
I see as we drive past
act of light
among sleeping houses
in our need
the dark people (72)

The pronominal separation in “we drive” and “our need” contrasting with “the dark people” marks a clear separation between them and the speaker, with the speaker’s witnessing contrasting with the Panthers witnessing from their cars. Using machine/animal mediators such as “Panther cars,” however, rather than fully identifying them as revolutionaries or even citizens, for example, alienates and dehumanizes—i.e., the speaker’s witnessing from a point of privilege does little to humanize the people involved. Rukeyser returns instead to the act of burnishing as a way of describing “the shine, the scene,” as the central action of the poem holding apparent opposites or extremes—“statement of light,” “act of light,” “dark people,” “dark houses”—connecting them via the burnishing work of “one masked man / working alone” (72).

In some ways the poem fails; the premise borders on triteness and the depiction of tension between Panthers and police rather subtle given the history of police brutality in Oakland that Rukeyser certainly would have known about. The figure with which she seems most obsessed—the builder, the working man, the person moving forward into the future by the act of making, perhaps akin to her father—seems to mediate her social concerns and place them in the background (Levi xii). Reading generously, however, reveals that she wrote to engage the issue at a time when few white writers did so with any kind of self-reflexive depth. The invisibility of black struggle is blatantly portrayed here and we can discern an intent to illuminate, even if the use of “the dark people” as emblematic accessory feels typical. She certainly cannot sympathize or empathize, and doesn’t attempt to; the absence of comparison of woes is admirable.

However, the two-stanza poem that opens the book, “St. Roach,” four decades after its publication reads as condescending. Personifying a pest by addressing it, but using the basest language of insult in an apologetic tone that feels like less like an apology than excuse-making, can cause further injury for the listing of the root divisions between “I” and “you”: “I could not tell one from another / Only that you were dark, fast on your feet, and slender. /          Not like me.” (Rukeyser 3). By the second stanza, the poem turns—from a litany of what the speaker feared, avoided, misunderstood, remained actively ignorant of—and Rukeyser chronicles the wonder of the moment of discovery. But again, the language is condescending and presumptuous. “Yesterday I looked at one of you for the first time. / You were lighter than the others in color, that was / neither good nor bad” (3). If we infer comparisons to skin color, the roach metaphor becomes even more offensive, the speaker’s desire for connection mixed with past learned repulsion making it appear that desire/wonder is somehow admirable. “One of you” underscores separation and difference between human (speaker) and insect (roach/subject). If she uses such a precarious extended metaphor, how much can Rukeyser or the speaker really know, even with earnest inquiry? The closing lines seem tender: “You were startled, you ran, you fled away, / Fast as a dancer, light, strange and lovely to the touch. / I reach, I touch. I begin to know you” (4). But, is that beginning enough? Is it begun in the right spirit? That is, is execution tantamount to intention, and if so, how effective is the poem on a craft level?

The use of repetition (“the first time” repeated three times in the last nine lines, for example) doesn't really transform in meaning, although it does emphasize the shift from not knowing in the first 22-line stanza. “You” is used in an almost accusatory manner 24 times in that stanza, compared with 14 “I” or “me” statements, and three active “they” statements: “they told me you are filth,” “they showed me by every action to despise your kind,” “they poured boiling / water on you, they flushed you down” (3). “We” also appears active: “we say you are filthing our food / But we know not at all”—alongside the negative-oriented “I,” the refrain “never” an absolute, almost a claim of innocence, a refrain of ignorance: “For that I never knew you, I only learned to dread you, / for that I never touched you” (3). In many ways, this poem effectively shows bias as insidious and ingrained, that even in reaching out for connection, such reaching out using a dehumanizing metaphor of vermin while proclaiming innocence another violence. Another reading of the poem, however, could reverse that interpretation, say it has nothing to do with skin color, but instead references the Holocaust, since Rukeyser is Jewish, noting that Germans often referred to Jewish people as vermin leading up to and during the genocide. Even if we do not conflate Rukeyser and the speaker, though, one could view the I as the voice of embodied ignorance trying to free itself, aspiring to be universal and genderless, cross-historical and inherently political. That simultaneity may give Rukeyser more credit than deserved, but perhaps not. Either way, questioning the poem allows the reader to grapple with serious questions of how we address each other, think of and discuss the positions we assume in discourse. In Rukeyser’s case, centering the “I” prioritizes the witness’ feelings over the observed “other,” resulting in what Saidiya Hartman (in discussing a white slaveowner—Rankin—writing about witnessing the horrors of the slave trade ) calls the “slipperiness of empathy”:

[T]his flight of imagination and slipping into the captive’s body unlatches a Pandora’s box and, surprisingly, what comes to the fore is the difficulty and slipperiness of empathy. Properly speaking, empathy is a projection of oneself into another in order to better understand the other […] Yet empathy in important respects confounds Rankin’s efforts to identify with the enslaved because in making the slave’s suffering his own, Rankin begins to feel for himself rather than for those whom this exercise in imagination presumably is designed to reach, Moreover, by exploiting the vulnerability of the captive body as a vessel for the uses, thoughts, and feelings of others, the humanity extended to the slave inadvertently confirms the expectations [spacer]and desires definitive of the relations of chattel slavery. In other words, the ease of Rankin’s empathic identification is as much due to his good intentions and heartfelt opposition to slavery as to the fungibility of the captive body, By making the suffering of others his own, has Rankin ameliorated indifference or only confirmed the difficulty of understanding the suffering of the enslaved? Can the white witness of the spectacle of suffering affirm the materiality of black sentience only by feeling for himself? [1]

Rukeyser relies on empathy heavily in her work; her care feels authentic, but her language choices and internalized white supremacy keeps it slipping into the same problematic territory Rankin inhabits. Later in The Gates comes “The Wards,” a poem set in a hospital, where “a man burns in fever; he is here, he is there, / Five thousand years ago in the cave country” (39). The speaker also travels—“wandering in Macao, / I run all night the black alleys” (39). But instead of despairing, feeling frightened or complaining, Rukeyser’s speaker retreats into existential reflection: “Time rounds over the edge and all that exists in all. We hold / all human history all geography” (39). Her use of empathy here feels less slippery because she takes a wider perspective on it across time and place, holding both the lightness and darkness of human experience inside of her own—though she still exoticizes that experience via the assumed mystique of Macao and danger of black alleys.

Yet, she earnestly persists. Throughout The Gates, Rukeyser aims to shed light—a word thematic in this book and others of hers—on ignored or maligned individuals or populations, attempting to depict a fuller sense of humanity’s connectedness: “Give us ourselves and we risk everything” (39). The fifteen-part title poem closes the book. Stage direction from the outset lets us know it occurs on a “Scaffolding,” and “The Gates” imagines the speaker as advocate for a poet in solitary confinement on one level, and as advocate for humanity on another: “the marvelous / hard-gripped people silent among their rulers, looking / at me” (87). Again, the “me” here drives her empathy and resultant social justice action. Going back to The Life of Poetry, we see that Rukeyser doesn’t separate the poem and the poet; in talking about Whitman, another I-centerer, she says “Out of his own body, and its relation to itself and the sea, he drew his basic rhythms” (77), depicting the poetic imagination as in physical and intellectual relationship with the world. We can learn from both Rukeyser and Whitman that we can complicate our poetics further; maybe we begin with our earnest I-centered exuberance and empathy, but we can use deeper attention and greater imagination in moving toward real change.

But is real change even possible in a world obsessed with proofs, with propriety and domination? Harry Houdini provides a stellar example of Rukeyser’s continued attempts to invite readers into that conversation. In Houdini: A Musical, we find her at the height of her imaginative powers, building on her views about fear’s dangers and linking social concerns to her fascination with possibility and science and imagination. Houdini is the perfect vehicle, as he demystifies his magic physically and intellectually while retaining the wonder of the spectacle. In the very first act and scene, in an exchange between Houdini and Beatrice, who would later become his wife and stage partner, Rukeyser portrays control of fear as the key to Houdini’s ability to perform his tricks, escaping from locks in particular. Houdini, in response to Beatrice’s initial fear of those tricks: “I have to control my fear, and every muscle in my body” (15).

Houdini asks questions like: are magic and illusion the same? And ancient mistakes—is it our job now to keep living with the consequences, or do we redefine the legacies? An exchange between Houdini and Volonty (a fellow performer and fortune-teller who Rukeyser takes pains to describe as a black woman) occurs after a bluesy song about hard times makes excellent use of humor in attempting to answer:

A real escape artist. Tell your fortune, good looking?
No, thanks. Against my religion.
What religion would that be?
What I live by. Pompous as ever. And, of course, born
Jewish. My father said we’re not magicians because of what Moses did.
Kill the Egyptian?
There’s that, but you know when they were in the desert? No water, but there was the cloud
by day. And God told Moses to strike the rock with his staff. Water gushed forth.
Moses let them believe it was all his doing; he didn’t give credit. That’s why he wasn’t
allowed to go into the Promised Land. And we’re not to be magicians.
And whose credit? Oh, I see. But you’re a magician.
Come on. You know better. I’m an illusionist.
Same difference. (52)

Houdini’s hype man, Marco Bone, further describes him: “This is a man who breaks all constraints” (86), and Rukeyser clearly does the same in her writing. Houdini moves through time masterfully, with shifts often signaled by Marco Bone’s narration, at other times seamlessly blending the transitions of Houdini’s life through dialogue or song. Somehow, drama feels like a more natural container for such shifts, characteristic of Rukeyser’s other work, particularly Savage Coast, in which temporal shifts feel much more unsettling—as jolting as train travel. In the play, they feel sweeping in a more magical way, though both feel just as intentional. The reader becomes swept up in the action of Houdini because of the explicit performative aspect, whereas with a novel the natural reader response is to follow a narrative thread. Rukeyser is concerned with the reader, to be sure, but in a way that challenges us to evolve as we participate.

Indeed, while her relationship with the reader is invitational, she remains acutely aware of resistance to change, and dramatizes it in Houdini. Rukeyser uses the Greek chorus, an ENSEMBLE, throughout the play to represent the voice of society as enforcer of norms—often violent in speech, then in physical threat. The ENSEMBLE insults and berates Houdini toward the end, after the Washington, DC hearing about whether to ban fortune-telling and in which he tries to explain the difference between that and his illusions, and in so explaining, finding himself branded as a nonbeliever. The ENSEMBLE’s wall of ignorance is tough to breach, particularly when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle proclaims to all that Houdini “has powers greater than human powers” (133). Houdini balks, and later in response to the ENSEMBLE’s question “Do you attack faith?” he insists humorously otherwise, reiterating that self-knowledge and unified existence enables him to perform his illusions:

Our emotions are part of our bodies and ourselves.
How do you juggle? How do you escape?
I don’t call it religion. (141)

By the end of the play, after Houdini is caught off-guard and punched by a medical student, leading to his death (the irony of him being killed by institutional healers is not lost on Rukeyser), and with the ENSEMBLE “

By the end of the play, after Houdini is caught off-guard and punched by a medical student, leading to his death (the irony of him being killed by institutional healers is not lost on Rukeyser), and with the ENSEMBLE “Singing, crowing, laughing, a chaos of noise,” he emerges “out of the blackness to the point closest to the audience” to deliver a closing monologue that invites the audience to embrace what he lived life in service of:

I believe the incredible,
Swallow anything, eat the inedible, […]
And I make, I make by touch, by touch.
Great touch by which we do all things,
Even our imaginings.
Even numbers, even words—
[…] Open yourself, for we are locks,
Open each other, we are keys. […]
(Gently claps his hands together and stretches them out) (150)

Her dramatic biography of Houdini thus becomes another way Rukeyser connects science and poetry, intellect and feeling—unifying them, proclaiming that they have a relationship that matters, that they exchange an energy that infuses our culture with aliveness. Using drama makes that aliveness more immediate when performed, and invitational to multiple voices in a more public way than poetry with its tendency toward intimacy. Worth saying explicitly: she did not experiment with genre. Rather, she chose the most fitting container for what she wanted the work to do.

Works Cited

Barnat, Dara. "'Women and poets see the truth arrive': Muriel Rukeyser and Walt Whitman." Studies in American Jewish Literature, vol. 34 no. 1, 2015, pp. 94 116. Project MUSE,

Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kennedy-Epstein, Rowena. "'Her Symbol Was Civil War': Recovering Muriel Rukeyser's Lost Spanish Civil War Novel." Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 59, no. 2, 2013, pp. 416 439,462, ProQuest Central, https://search

Levi, Jan Heller, ed. A Muriel Rukeyser Reader.W. W. Norton, 1986.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. The Crossing Press, 1984.

Rukeyser, Muriel. Houdini: A Musical. Paris Press, 2002. 

Rukeyser, Muriel. More Night. Harper & Row, 1981.

Rukeyser, Muriel. Savage Coast. The Feminist Press, 2013.

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Gates. McGraw-Hill, 1976. 

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Green Wave. Doubleday, 1948.

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Life of Poetry. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 1996.

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Life of Poetry. Paris Press, 1996. 

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Outer Banks. Unicorn Press, 1967. 

[1]Scenes of Subjection, pp. 18-19.




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