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  • Raymond Obstfeld

Poem #4: Karl Shapiro's "Auto Wreck"

Updated: Apr 13



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"Auto Wreck" is the perfect pandemic poem in that it questions the nature of Nature and its relationship to humanity, particularly addressing: Why do bad things happen to good people?


"Auto Wreck" by Karl Shapiro

Its quick soft silver bell beating, beating, And down the dark one ruby flare Pulsing out red light like an artery, The ambulance at top speed floating down Past beacons and illuminated clocks Wings in a heavy curve, dips down, And brakes speed, entering the crowd. The doors leap open, emptying light; Stretchers are laid out, the mangled lifted And stowed into the little hospital. Then the bell, breaking the hush, tolls once. And the ambulance with its terrible cargo Rocking, slightly rocking, moves away, As the doors, an afterthought, are closed. We are deranged, walking among the cops Who sweep glass and are large and composed. One is still making notes under the light. One with a bucket douches ponds of blood Into the street and gutter. One hangs lanterns on the wrecks that cling, Empty husks of locusts, to iron poles. Our throats were tight as tourniquets, Our feet were bound with splints, but now, Like convalescents intimate and gauche, We speak through sickly smiles and warn With the stubborn saw of common sense, The grim joke and the banal resolution. The traffic moves around with care, But we remain, touching a wound That opens to our richest horror. Already old, the question Who shall die? Becomes unspoken Who is innocent? For death in war is done by hands; Suicide has cause and stillbirth, logic; And cancer, simple as a flower, blooms. But this invites the occult mind, Cancels our physics with a sneer, And spatters all we knew of denouement Across the expedient and wicked stones.


Why This Poem

I’ve been thinking a lot about this poem lately, though I first read it in graduate school in 1974 when I was an eager young poetry student of the author, Karl Shapiro. Back then, I appreciated the fine craftsmanship, the word choices, the imagery. For years, I taught this poem to students so they could learn the intricacies of the craft and the wallop of the last stanza as the theme is punched home. Despite my awe at the writing, the words delighted my mind but never lodged in my heart. That has changed.


Why has this poem been so prominent in my thoughts now that, 45 years later, several lines float about in my head almost on a daily basis?


One reason is general. I’m at an age (late sixties) when I’m more prone to experience the inevitable grief of losing friends and relatives. I’ve experienced grief before, having lost both parents decades ago. But now there’s an urgency, as if my loved ones are in a bakery line taking numbers, waiting to be served their mortality. (I know I’m also in that line, but can’t seem to make out the number. I read that one way to know you’re dreaming is the inability to read. Perhaps my refusal to read my number is my willful dream state about the inevitable.)


The other reason is specific: something shocking happened. A couple weeks ago, I was playing basketball at the park on a Wednesday night with my regular group. I’m the oldest player and the most reconstructed, with three knee surgeries, a replaced hip, and a bad shoulder. I’m slow but I’m tireless and I have a very good three-point shot. That shot allows me to have enough value to keep playing with faster, stronger players. One of the players, Rick (who, at 60, is the nearest to my age), was standing on the sidelines waiting to play when he suddenly collapsed to the ground and died. At least, we think he did.


I immediately dropped to the ground next to him and began CPR compressions on his chest, frantically recalling what I’d remembered from the infant CPR classes my wife and I took when she was pregnant 22 years ago. Another of our group began mouth-to-mouth, another called 911, another ran to the nearby softball field in search of a doctor. We couldn’t detect a pulse or breathing, but took turns giving him CPR. Jump to the conclusion: the ambulance came, shocked his heart back to life, he had quintuple by-pass surgery, and is now alive and well. After the ambulance took him away, we all went home.


Two thoughts haunted me on the days after. First, I couldn’t stop thinking about my lame response to his collapse. Yes, I dove right in to perform CPR, but I wasn’t confident that I was doing it right or that it had any effect on him at all. I vowed to watch some CPR videos on YouTube (I did not do so).


Second, over the next few days my fellow basketball players and I felt the need to text about the incident. I had called the hospital where the driver said they were taking him but no one ever picked up the phone. Scary. Another player stopped by the hospital but they wouldn’t give him any info. Because none of us knew whether or not he was alive, we were especially creeped out. Our texts were banal (you’ll see why this description is important in the poem), just talking about how shaken we were, not just about what happened, but that none of us knew his last name or anything about him. I immediately made an appointment with my cardiologist. When our group met a few days later to play again, we were all still rattled, retelling the incident again and again for new players. We didn't tell it as if it were something interesting, but as if it were some kind of horror we’d all witnessed and were relieved to have survived. Even those in their twenties felt that way.


For weeks after, lines from “Auto Wreck” kept running through my mind because they captured exactly our reaction. It’s an excellent example of how poetry can articulate the powerful but vague feelings, and how giving those feelings words can help us understand and cope with them.


UPDATE ON THE ABOVE: I wrote the above a few weeks before the world came under the pandemic cloud we now live in. What’s especially disorienting (in a poem about being disoriented) is how much the poem applies to our current situation. A natural disaster like a pandemic (or hurricane or tsunami) invites, as the poem states, “the occult mind.” Every day the experts remind us who is at risk. At first, when it seemed like people over 65 were most at risk, those younger ignored some of the guidelines thinking, “It doesn’t pertain to me.” At our core, we look for cause-and-effect in an effort to control and be comforted by what destroys us. That’s what this poem is about.


What This Poem Means to Me

Everything I wrote above should tell you why it’s important to me right now. But the reason it’s important to me beyond those circumstances on the basketball court is because I love the balance of brutal imagery in the first part with the philosophical tone in the second part. The first part captures the unmoored mind that has just experienced random death—even a stranger’s. The feeling of staggering more than walking, of life being nothing more than drifting purposelessly.


Being openly philosophical in a poem rarely works because it usually results in the poem being too shallow or too preachy—or both. Karl (I’ll call him Karl here just as I did when I was his student) gives us a last stanza that is among the best and most powerful endings I’ve ever seen. It always leaves me a little stunned and, well, philosophical.


All the Biography You Need to Know for This Poem

Karl Shapiro (1913-2000) was born in Baltimore, Maryland and attended the University of Virginia for two years before being interrupted by military service during World War II. He never returned to college, despite eventually becoming a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and later at the University of California, Davis (where I met him). He won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1945, became the editor of Poetry magazine for several years, and was appointed America’s Poet Laureate in 1946 and 1947. In 1969 he received the Bollingen Prize for Poetry. Karl published this poem in 1942, when he was 29 years old.


My Personal Biography with Karl Shapiro That You Don’t Need to Know for This Poem

I only knew Karl for the two years I was a graduate student at UC Davis, from 1974 to 1976. He was my thesis advisor, my thesis consisting of a book of poetry. We weren’t close, though I respected him immensely. My first memorable meeting with him was at his house, where he held our poetry seminar for grad students. There were about five of us. On the day of our first meeting, I was so excited about the class that I pedaled the two miles on my bike as fast as I could. When I arrived, I breathlessly knocked on his front door. He answered with a surprised look and asked, “What are you doing here?” “I’m here for class,” I responded. “Class isn’t for another hour,” he said.


I didn’t realize I’d arrived an hour early and offered to come back later. Karl graciously invited me in. We sat in his den and he very kindly praised my poetry that we were set to discuss during class. I was so elated that you could have stuck a nail in my arm and I wouldn’t have felt it. He then showed me a poem he’d just gotten back from The New Yorker. It had a bunch of notes and suggestions scribbled on it by Howard Moss, the poetry editor at the time. I was livid with rage: How dare Howard Moss make suggestions to someone like Karl Shapiro. Yes, I was that naïve and dumb. I asked Karl what he would do about such an affront, thinking maybe he’d visit Moss with a baseball bat. He smiled and said, “I’ll think about it for a while. Then I’ll either make the changes or I won’t.” That exchange was one of the greatest writing lessons in my life, one that has informed my own reaction to criticism. His calm acceptance made me realize that criticism of one’s writing was not personal, an affront that required dueling pistols. They were just words to be considered, then either embraced or not.


The last time we met was at my defense of my thesis, which was a book of poetry. Two of the people on my committee were a husband and wife, both of whom I’d had negative experiences with. The wife rarely showed up at the poetry seminar she was supposed to be teaching, leaving us sitting in the hall outside her office where class was supposed to occur. Her husband also chose to be cavalier in his teaching to the point where I wrote a lengthy letter of complaint to the dean. The dean agreed with my complaints and afterward there was great tension between them and me.


Yet, they both had extensive suggestions for changes in each of my poems in my thesis collection. I thought they were arbitrary and retributive and told Karl that. He agreed, but suggested I make the changes just for the sake of the meeting, after which I could toss them out and go back to the originals. But I refused. (Yes, I was not very smart. There was no principle, nothing to be gained. Still…) When the meeting started, Karl immediately spoke up: “I think these poems are wonderfully crafter, written with passion and depth.” He said a few other things, concluding with, “I like them just as they are.” When other faculty were asked to speak, a couple others echoed Karl. The husband and wife said nothing. Karl definitely saved me from myself that day.


When my own book of poetry was published two years later, Karl wrote a lovely blurb for the jacket that I still cherish.


Dear Poetry Enthusiasts. My goal for this blog isn't just to pontificate, but to encourage some conversation about the works. Please offer your comments, questions, observations, alternate interpretations, etc.


Line-by-Line Musings

Auto Wreck (title)


At first glance, the title is straightforward, almost journalistically detached in

telling us that the poem is about a crashed car. Simple. The contrast of the

simplicity of the title—telling us this is such a common occurrence that it

requires no eloquence—to the devastation it causes creates a subtle conflict

and anticipation.


It might also be describing the effect on the bystanders (and of the readers

of the poem) in witnessing random death: we are automatically wrecked by

the larger questions about life and death that the accident evokes.


Its quick soft silver bell beating, beating, And down the dark one ruby flare Pulsing out red light like an artery,


These three lines together create a specific image of the approaching

ambulance. (The poem was published in 1942 so ambulances sounded

different then, less screaming siren and more polite ringing of bells.)


The “soft silver bell beating, beating” compares the bell to the heart, as does

the “ruby flare/Pulsing out red light like an artery.” This creates a nervous

anticipation that foreshadows where it is going.


The phrase that really stands out here is “down the dark,” which is ominous.

Literally, it’s suggesting the ambulance is going down a dark road. But it’s also

hinting that it’s going down something else that is dark, perhaps the

meaninglessness of death (and therefore life) in the grand scheme of the

universe.


An aside about the bells: The reference to the silver bells reminds me of

Poe’s poem, “The Bells”:

Hear the sledges with the bells—                  Silver bells! What a world of merriment their melody foretells!         How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,            In the icy air of night!         While the stars that oversprinkle         All the heavens, seem to twinkle            With a crystalline delight;


The poem goes through a series of bells that announce various hallmarks in

a person’s life. Here the silver bells herald the joys of youth, possibly on a

sleigh ride, while other stanzas feature golden bells (marriage), brazen bells

(loss), and iron bells (death).


The ambulance at top speed floating down


“at top speed floating down”: Two things in this phrase to note: First, the

repetition of the word “down” from two lines previous. Here the ambulance is

floating down, but from where? This begins the motif of words that suggests

the ambulance is coming from some heavenly place of love an compassion.

The tricky part is that this idea comes from the narrator, who hasn’t yet

identified himself. It establishes his orthodox world view that there is some

sort of heavenly plan and justice.


Second, is the contrast between the ambulance moving “at top speed” yet

“floating down,” like an angel. This ties in with the heavenly motif.


Past beacons and illuminated clocks


Here we have two sources of light, the beacons and the illuminated clocks.

The clocks are about the finite measure of time humans have, hence our

obsession with clocks. I wonder if “illuminated” isn’t a sly reference to

illuminated manuscripts that were produced mostly in the Middle Ages.

These colorfully illustrated texts were handmade, mostly of Christian

scripture. They were illuminated by the silver and gold used in the

illustrations. So, the illuminated clocks become a modern scripture because

now life is measured by its physical time on Earth rather than the spiritual

time, of which life on Earth is but a fraction.


Wings in a heavy curve, dips down,


The line starts with “wings,” continuing the heavenly/angelic motif.


The word “down” is repeated for the third time in 6 lines, emphasizing the

idea that the ambulance is descending from some higher place. At least

that’s how the narrator sees it. This might also be a reference to the biblical

story of the fall from grace when humanity got booted out of the Garden of

Eden for attempting to share the knowledge of good and evil that only God is

equipped to understand. According to the story, now that we have fallen, we

must experience the horrors of mortality by being exposed to the natural

world.


And brakes speed, entering the crowd.


What’s startling here is the phrase “entering the crowd,” as if it’s not just

pulling up while the crowd steps back, but that the ambulance—and the

soberness of its purpose—is physically and emotionally entering the crowd.

Against their will.


The doors leap open, emptying light;


“The doors leap open” also continues the idea that the ambulance is not just

a medical tool, but a living thing. The opening lines gave it a heartbeat and

here the doors leap with no specific mention of any attendants.


“Emptying light” brings us another light source—other than the beacons and

illuminated clocks. But here we’re not driving past the human-made notions

of light, this suggests an emptying of divine light that fills the crowd with

hope.


Stretchers are laid out, the mangled lifted

And stowed into the little hospital.


The key words here are “the mangled” and “stowed,” referring to the injured

or dead. Now they are objects, less than human, to be “stowed” like goods on

a shelf. Or like slabs of meat in a “meat wagon” (a slang term for an

ambulance). These terms seem to contrast the idea of the ambulance as “a

little hospital” where there’s hope. Instead, the terms convey a hopelessness.


This is the start of the shift in the poem from displaying a faith in the

religious vision of God and God’s perfect but unknowable plan, to a more

Existential (the philosophy) view that, in terms or morality and justice, the

universe is neutral. There is no God, no plan, good is not rewarded and evil

punished. It conjures the key question in basic theology and philosophy: Why

do bad things happen to good people?


Then the bell, breaking the hush, tolls once.


Notice that the bell is no longer the hopeful “soft” and “beating,” but now it’s

tolling. This is a reference to bells tolling when someone dies. Going back to

Poe’s “The Bells,” the final bell tolls and we can see the same shift in mood in

“Auto Wreck” as in “The Bells”:


Hear the tolling of the bells—                  Iron bells! What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!         In the silence of the night,         How we shiver with affright   At the melancholy menace of their tone!


To add another reference point for the tolling, in John Donne’s Devotions

Upon Emergent Occasions, "Meditation XVII," he writes:


Therefore, send not to know For whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.


In this case, he is saying it doesn’t matter who specifically the bell is tolling

for, we are all damaged by the loss of another person, whether or not we

knew them. Karl clearly manifests this idea in his poem, in which the loss of

strangers has left the bystanders psychically wounded.


And the ambulance with its terrible cargo


The phrase “terrible cargo” continues the motif of dehumanizing the dead,

who are now just cargo.


Rocking, slightly rocking, moves away,


The rocking motion mentioned here evokes the image of mourning

someone, as if rocking the body in grief. At the same time, it recalls when the

body was an infant to be rocked by loving parents. It is a final attempt by the

narrator to humanize “the mangled.”


As the doors, an afterthought, are closed.


Why are the doors an afterthought? That’s what we are supposed to wonder

with that phrase. It seems to suggest that they are an afterthought, a curtesy

really, for the sake of the bystanders. So that they might feel comforted.


Update: 4-13-20:

Dr. Bill McDonald, my former English professor and a man much smarter than I, had a wonderful insight to the opening lines of the poem that I failed to comment on. He writes: “I took a slightly less allegorical approach to the opening, seeing the speaker's vision of the descending ambulance as opening evidence of h/is blurry ‘derangement’ which the rest of the poem explores.” He’s right, as always. The allegorical images that I mention actually come from his point of view and express how he sees the ambulance in his deranged state of mind. Part of his derangement is to see the world in his default orthodox setting as orderly and just rather than random and pitiless. Ironically, his derangement finally allows him to see it more clearly as it is. He had to be shocked out of his complacency about his role in the universe to see the truth.


We are deranged, walking among the cops Who sweep glass and are large and composed. One is still making notes under the light. One with a bucket douches ponds of blood Into the street and gutter.


This is the first time a protagonist is introduced and we realize that

everything that has come before is in their point of view. They start this

stanza with the stark admission, “We are deranged.” Whatever hopeful

optimistic ideals they might have had have slowly eroded during the previous

scene. Now that their usual view of the world has been bludgeoned, the rest

of the poem becomes about reassessing what they thought about the world.


The protagonist feels small and impotent among the jaded cops who “are

large and composed.” Their size may be literal, but it’s also how they seem in

the face of this mind-numbing devastation.


The lines depicting the “ponds of blood” being douched “into the street and

gutter” further reduces the deaths from tragedy to commonplace. (note:

douche didn’t have all the cultural baggage in 1942 as it does today. It simply

meant a shower of water.)


One hangs lanterns on the wrecks that cling, Empty husks of locusts, to iron poles.


This image of the wrecked cars clinging to the poles like “empty husks of

locusts” is one of my favorites in poetry. It is one of the few perfect moments

in poetry in which the image so captures the reality that I no longer can think

of anything else when I think of a car crash.


Our throats were tight as tourniquets, Our feet were bound with splints, but now, Like convalescents intimate and gauche,


This reversal of the bystanders now being the injured, and perhaps even

greater victims because they are survivors whose complacent sense of life

and their place in it has been shaken. They are now unbalanced by the

instant recognition of their mortality being unrelated to their morality.


I love the line “Like convalescents intimate and gauche” because it throws the

bystanders together, as do all tragedies, in their shared experience. But the

narrator uses two contrasting ideas: there is a mutual, almost sacred,

intimacy because all social pretense is stripped away, like people

shipwrecked on an island. Yet, at the same time, they are gauche (meaning

socially awkward, unsophisticated), suggesting they don’t have an effective

way to communicate to each other how they are feeling—the fear, the

uncertainty.


In the movie Bang the Drum Slowly, Henry Wiggins says,

“Everybody knows everybody is dying; that's why people are as good as they

are.” On a broader scale, that’s what these bystanders are also feeling and

what the poem wants us to feel at the end. (note: The movie is based on a

novel by Mark Harris, one of my favorite writers. But in the scene I just sited

above, which Mark Harris also wrote, he actually improved upon the original

line in the novel: "’Everybody knows everybody is dying’, I said. ‘That is why

people are nice. You all die soon enough, so why not be nice to each other?’”

The rhythm of the line as well as its meaning were sharpened in the script.)


We speak through sickly smiles and warn With the stubborn saw of common sense, The grim joke and the banal resolution.


These three lines express the level of inarticulate and “gauche” the

bystanders are in expressing just how deranged and unsettled they feel. They

force smiles. They repeat “common sense” saws (“saw” defined here as a

proverb or maxim) like “accidents happen” or “you have to always drive

defensively.” The phrase “common sense” here indicates a comforting cliché

that is our way of making sense of the accident, of seeking some cause. The

“banal resolution”—such as “I’m never going to speed again” or “I’m going to

cherish every minute”—is another coping device for the unexpected

reminder of our fragility and insignificance.


Whenever humans are faced with a disaster that goes against their notions

of right and wrong, they look for an explanation that comforts them. We are

obsessed with there being a definable cause. If we can identify that cause,

we can protect ourselves. But accidents and natural disasters and pandemics

don’t adhere to our notions of fair play when it comes to cause-and-effect.

We are impotent to protect ourselves.


The traffic moves around with care, But we remain, touching a wound That opens to our richest horror.


BEHOLD: “touching a wound that opens to our richest horror” is one of the

most powerful and memorable lines I’ve ever read in anything. The

combination of “richest” with “horror” carries a thumping impact. The line

comes back to me over and over again whenever I encounter something

terrifying in life or in humanity. Calling our existential angst a “wound”

suggests that it is always there, never healed, an opening to what we fear

most: that we are insignificant in the grand cycle of nature. That there is no

afterlife, no reward—just oblivion.


Already old, the question Who shall die? Becomes unspoken Who is innocent?


These last two lines of the stanza get right to the point: When we ask who

shall die we’re really asking who deserves to die. Which brings us to the

question: Who is innocent? The poem has led us down two paths, the

religious and the secular, and they both come to the same conclusion: no

one is innocent. The Old Testament would state that all humanity is guilty of

Original Sin and therefore condemned to death. The secular would say that

guilt or innocence doesn’t matter since nature is indifferent to our moral

notions. Either way, dead is dead. And there is nothing we can do to change

that inevitability.


For death in war is done by hands; Suicide has cause and stillbirth, logic; And cancer, simple as a flower, blooms.


These three lines give a list of the logical causes of death that we can all

accept: war, suicide, stillbirth, and cancer. Yet, our acceptance of them is

based more on repetition than understanding. We understand the medical

causes of cancer and stillbirth, but not necessarily why some are afflicted

and others not (why some are genetically predisposed and others not).


But this invites the occult mind,

Cancels our physics with a sneer,


The “occult mind” suggests the supernatural and magical. In the realm of the

supernatural, our notions of the laws of physics seems quaint and naïve,

worthy of a sneer of derision.


Unable to find a logical explanation for tragic death, especially of those we

deem as good, makes us turn to what is beyond the laws of physics of our

world. Which, of course, is what brings some to religion, which is

supernatural and magical. Yet, it doesn’t ease those devotees who can’t

accept the religious explanation for all things that seem contradictory that

God moves in mysterious ways, meaning that the rules of the occult offer no

better comfort than those of physics.


And spatters all we knew of denouement


The denouement is the part of a story at the end where everything is logically

explained, as in a mystery when the detective reveals the killer, the motive,

and how it was all done. The murder represents the chaos in the world; the

denouement represents the restoration of order. It says, “See, even the most

convoluted mysteries have a logical explanation.” But there is no restoration

of order in this poem because denouement has been violently spattered—

like the bodies of the accident victims.


Across the expedient and wicked stones.


What an amazing last line! All our hopes for an orderly and just world—in

which innocence is rewarded and evil is punished—are spattered across the

stones of the road. What kind of stones? They are “expedient,” meaning they

are convenient. Anything and everything in the world is a murder weapon. In

this case, the stones were handy.


To the indifferent universe, the stones are expedient, but to the shaken

protagonist, the stones are wicked, not because they have evil intent, but

because they have no intent at all. And we are left with the metaphysical

hangover in which everything in the world threatens our existence and there

is no action—good or bad—that will influence the outcome.


This reminds me of Ambrose Bierce’s famous short story, “An Occurrence at

Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) [you can watch an excellent film adaptation here

https://vimeo.com/163730099], in which a man who is about to be hanged

during the Civil War for sabotaging a railroad. But the rope miraculously

breaks and he drops into the water and escapes. When he finally makes it

back home and runs up to hug his wife, his neck snaps back, he sees a flash

of white, then nothing. He discover that he is hanged and just imagined his

escape. He imagined it because, to him, he was a good man doing a good

deed and therefore would be saved. But, as the title tells us, his death is

nothing more than an “occurrence,” with no greater meaning to the universe.


It also echoes Stephen Crane’s famous short story, “Open Boat” (1897), based

on his experiences surviving the sinking of a ship he was on. He survived

with three other men in a small boat for 30 hours until the boat capsized and

one of the men drowned. A few days after being rescued, Crane published

his account of what happened, “Stephen Crane’s Own Story.” Not satisfied

with the limitations of the facts, he wrote a fictionalized account in order to

be able to explore deeper truths. In the story, the unnamed journalist

endures all the same adventures, but as the men are forced to have to try to

make it ashore, despite treacherous waters, the boat overturns and (as in

real life), the oiler, Billie, drowns. What Crane makes clear in the story is that

logically Billie is the one of the four who should have survived because he

was young, fit, and knew about the sea. The other three men were either

wounded, unfit, or lacked knowledge of the sea. The final lines of the story

reveal how the experience changed the men’s world view:


When night came, the white waves rolled back and forth in the

moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s

voice to the men on the shore. And they felt that they could then

understand.


They now understand the world’s indifference to them. That we all live in a

metaphoric “open boat,” exposed to the elements and whims of nature. In

contrast, we must help and comfort each other. This same theme is

expressed more directly in Crane’s poem “A Man Said to the Universe”:

A man said to the universe: "Sir, I exist!" "However," replied the universe, "The fact has not created in me A sense of obligation."


Paul Simon modernizes that sentiment in his song, "I Know What I Know":

I know what I know

I'll sing what I said

We come and we go

That's a thing that I keep

In the back of my head

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