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Eroticism and exile: Anna Frajlich's poetry.


ANNA FRAJLICH IS not only a Polish emigre poet; she is also a poet of emigration and an emigres' poet -- i.e., a poet truly respected and admired by other emigres. One finds in Frajlich's verse a persistent preoccupation with the themes of exile, emigration, dislocation, and adaptation to new cultural contexts. Her poems are sensitive and penetrating notations of her changing attitudes toward emigration, of the complexities and ironies of emigre existence. The exilic motif dominates her writing. A poet who reached her poetic maturity as an emigre, Frajlich expresses in her poems a subtle interior exploration of herself in the context of the exilic condition. Emigration has become for Frajlich the crucible in which she is able to examine questions of deracination, cultural dislocation, homesickness for an elusive home, the search for a new sense of identity, the pain of loss or dispossession, and, ultimately, the reconfiguration of her identity and reintegration.

Because these themes are so central to her work, Anna Frajlich is not only a notable emigre poet, but, arguably, she is the most prominent Polish woman emigre poet of her generation. My reference to her as "an emigres' poet" is borne out by many enthusiastic reviews of her work by critics and scholars who themselves are emigres and who recognize the astuteness of her insights as well as the poetic power in her mapping of the stages of an emigre's transformation in and adaptation to exile. The chorus of her admirers includes, among others, the scholar and playwright Jan Kott, who labeled her "a poetess of exile"; the dean of Polish emigre poets, Stanislaw Balinski; and such literary critics as Maja Elzbieta Cybulska, herself an emigre in England, or Joanna Rostropowicz and Maya Peretz in the United States. (1) To cite one more emphatic expression of admiration, in his letter from Israel dated 15 February 1988, Stanislaw Wygodzki, another emigre writer, then in his eighties -- who didn't know Anna personally at the time -- wrote rather effusively: "Za tamte wiersze kocham Cie, moja droga Anno, kocham, naprawde kocham" (For those poems I love you, my dear Anna. I love you, truly love you). (2)

To those unfamiliar with the history of Eastern Europe, Anna Frajlich's biography may appear very exotic. (Alas, her saga echoes in its "exoticism" the sagas of many who tried to elude Nazi terror.) Born in the village of Katta Taldyk in the Osh region of Kirghizia, whither her mother escaped from Lwow during the second world war, Anna was reunited with her father in Lysva, in the Ural Mountains, a year later, and in 1946 her family settled in Szczecin (Stettin) on the Baltic Sea, a city that became Polish at the end of the war, when Poland's borders were moved west. It was in Szczecin that she spent her childhood. Having graduated with an M.A. in Polish literature from Warsaw University in 1965, Anna began her career as a journalist at a newspaper for the blind. That same year she married. Two years later she gave birth to a son. Her new nuclear family left Poland in November 1969, in the aftermath of the 1968 anti-Semitic campaign, and after brief stays in Vienna and Rome, they settled in New York City in 1970.

In the United States, having tried her hand at several professions (writing for Polish-language newspapers, reporting for Radio Free Europe, working in an epidemiology lab), Frajlich enrolled in the doctoral program in Slavic studies at New York University and a few years later defended her Ph.D. thesis. Since 1982, she has been teaching Polish language and literature at Columbia University.

Frajlich is the author of ten volumes of poetry published on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as numerous scholarly and journalistic writings, and is a recipient of the prestigious Koscielski Foundation literary prize, bestowed on her in Switzerland in 1982. In 1993, after a twenty-four-year hiatus, she returned triumphantly to Poland, where four volumes of her poetry have since been published -- Ogrodem i ogrodzeniem (1993), Jeszcze w drodze (1994), W sloncu listopada (2000), Znow szuka mnie wiatr (2002) -- all of them enjoying a very positive reception. (3) Indeed, the collection W sloncu listopada (In the November Sun) was among those works considered by readers of the very popular Warsaw daily Rzeczpospolita as a Polish book of the year.


As her biography clearly indicates, Frajlich has experienced several moves and cultural transplantations. In one of her relatively early poems, "Kraj utracony" (The Lost Land), she expressed her painful predicament of being a "wandering Jew" (this and all subsequent translations here are my own): "Driven out of many a land / For Jacob's and Abraham's sin / My forefathers / My parents and I / To this day we are wandering" ("Z niejednego wygnani kraju / za Jakuba grzech i Abrahama / prarodzice moi / i rodzice / Do dzis dnia sie blakamy"). (4) Expulsion from one's native land inevitably triggers emotional turmoil, a sense of loss and rejection, and leads to the questioning of one's identity. Several of Frajlich's poems written shortly after she had left Poland reflect the pain of exile and the bewilderment resulting from expulsion. In "Emigracja" (Emigration), for example, she wrote:
 We -- how come? -- islanders
 In the very heart of winds
 In the odd school of humility
 Where the elements teach
 I still remember
 The silence of continents
 Frost on the wire fence
 And the road to school.

 (My -- skad nagle? -- wyspiarze
 w samym sercu wiatrow
 w dziwnej szkole pokory
 gdzie zywioly ucza
 ciagle jeszcze pamietam
 cisze stalych ladow
 szron na drucianym plocie
 I droge do szkoly) (5)

She presents herself as a windswept and humiliated emigre, an islander longing for the solid land mass of the continent she was forced to leave behind. The poem conjures in one's mind a powerful image of instability and a lack of both physical and emotional rootedness. Yet, in a speech delivered on 10 September 1998 in Helsinki, Finland, at the 65th International PEN Club Congress, which Frajlich attended as the delegate of the American branch of the Center for Writers in Exile, the poet made a rather striking statement: "I am a Polish poet who was exiled from Poland thirty years ago because I am a Jew. I am a Polish Jew who escaped the worst [she is referring to the Holocaust, of course] because I was born in Soviet Kirghizia, which now is independent Kyrgyzstan. I write Polish poetry in the United States, where I also teach Polish language and literature. In my soul my three beings -- Jewish, Polish, and now American -- are now one. Indivisible."

Frajlich's writing is an expressive personal record of her dispossession and reintegration, and delineates the strategies by which the poet arrived at her sense of "indivisible" identity. She herself admits that writing poetry had a therapeutic value for her in the early stages of her adaptation to exile.


Unlike many other emigre writers, whose works consistently reflect negativity, pain, and their lack of acceptance of exile, Frajlich's stance is to challenge herself to accept, or even love, exile. In a poem dedicated to her son, a poem titled "Jesienna kolysanka" (Autumnal Lullaby) and composed shortly after her departure from Poland, Frajlich wrote: "Sleep my little son / and the wayfarers [travelers] / will come to love their pathless tracks. Sleep" (6) ("Spij syneczku / i podrozni / pokochaja swe bezdroza. Spij"). The poem reflects her maternal affection and tenderness, but also her effort to appease herself while appeasing her son. It may well be read as a hint at another survival technique. She is telling her son -- and convincing herself -- that coming to love and accept one's exilic fate is the way to survive. "Pokochac bezdroza," "to come to love one's pathless tracks," the bewildering paths of one's existence, is the lesson Frajlich is imparting. In a sense, this statement may be read as her existential credo.


Still, seeing Anna Frajlich as merely a poet of exile would be a reductionist view. In the context of exploring her life in exile, she writes poems which examine her experiences as both an emigre and a woman. Her poetry also constitutes a consistent trail of testimonials recording the experience of a woman in its full range and complexity and in the multiplicity of her roles, from childhood to maturity, from the awakening of love and passion to its ending, from motherhood to menopause. Her extreme honesty and openness may well be the "fringe benefits" of emigration. Among the cognitive privileges she gained as a result of emigration was the realization that she no longer needed to be attentive to local norms, values, and taboos, that she could flaunt her uniqueness and individuality. In an untitled poem she wrote:
 I am separate
 The leaf that falls for me
 So unusually places itself at my feet
 Nobody sees it with my eyes
 I am separate
 -- no part of a system
 nobody's property
 nor cog in a machine
 separately I measure mountains on the moon ...

The poem concludes:
 I may break down -- may
 Stop suddenly
 May fall in love -- may
 Suddenly leave
 And while dying consecrate with my lips
 A separate name of a separate God. (7)

As this poem clearly reveals, through love and life Anna Frajlich is determined to chart her own course. The assertive attitude is also reflected in other ways. The female persona of her poetry, for instance, is an equal partner in the erotic relationship, the subject and not merely the object of desire.

Eroticism infused with "exilic pain" and "eroticized" exile are the leitmotivs of Frajlich's poetry. On the one hand, her poems addressing erotic encounters are replete with implications that "exile" is embedded in love, whether in the form of physical or emotional distance and separation, or as anticipation and the bemoaning of the inevitable parting of ways. On the other hand, the poet "eroticizes" exile -- that is, presents it as ultimately acceptable and, potentially, yielding benefits and rewards.

Eroticism and exile are strongly intertwined in Frajlich's verse. Not only does the poet explore both themes on the basis of her personal experience and treat them with utmost honesty; she also views them within the same context of challenges and inevitable transformations. They are her driving forces. Exile may equal freedom, but freedom is bound with notions of responsibility, decision making, abandonment to one's own devices, and also anguish, fear, and dread. Frajlich masterfully explores these issues in her poem "Rozmyslania Wyzwolenca" (Meditations of a Freed Man). The poem begins rather perversely -- "Sweet is the yoke of enslavement / and bitter the fruit of freedom" ("Slodkie jest jarzmo niewoli / i gorzki owoc wolnosci") -- but ends on an explicitly somber note: "and the freedman whose master / used to take care of his wants / wanders at huge risk / in the kernel of freedom encased / for one can die in rags [literally: under a fence] / or become Diocletian's father" ("i dziwi sie wyzwoleniec / ktory mial wszystko u pana / jakie ogromne ryzyko / kryje sie w jadrze wolnosci / bo mozna umrzec pod plotem / lub ojcem byc Dioklecjana"). (8) Freedoms gained as a result of exile can spell failure, loneliness, death in dire poverty, or grandeur (as in the case of the Roman slave Diocletian, who became the father of an emperor).

Love, like exile, also implies risk, anguish, and often difficult maneuvers and decisions. Eros inevitably leads to clashes, to the struggle between intellect and instinct, to breaking out from well-defined patterns and constantly crossing barriers. All this, however, leads to greater self-realization. Without these clashes and tensions prompted by Eros, an individual's libido and psyche would remain safe but passive, and would never achieve self-definition. Likewise, without exile and the challenges, tensions, and clashes generated by it, the cognitive process of arriving at one's sense of identity is likely to be impoverished. Potentially, at least, exile can lead to a cognitive drama resulting in a more profound cognitive denouement. (9)

A significant number of Frajlich's poems, including some of the most erotically charged ones, convey such tensions and sentiments. In love, as in exile, there is often a sense of loss, of a lack of attainment, of not connecting with the other person, of not reaching the yearned-for yet elusive goal or "home." Much of Frajlich's love poetry is what I would call in Polish "poezja niespelnienia," the poetry of unattainment or unfulfillment.

Eroticism is rendered with much subtlety in Frajlich's verse. Many of her love poems, though ostensibly placid, pulsate with subterranean erotic energy, sometimes implied by just a few words. In such erotically charged poems as "Renoir's Women" ("Kobiety Renoira"), "New York, November and a Rose" ("Nowy York, listopad i roza"), or "The Ocean Divides Us" ("Miedzy nami ocean), and many others, she traverses the field of erotic tensions, identifying them, musing on them, and devising survival strategies. (10) She does so without resorting to explicit descriptions, and certainly never comes close to vulgarity. "The Telephone" ("Telefon"), a poem quoted below in its entirety, reveals the subtlety of Frajlich's artistic means.

 w dzwonki
 i pierscionki drutow
 sklebionych gdzies pod ziemia
 -- jak mnie uczono w szkole --
 czestotliwoscia drgan na blaszcze
 moge cie miec
 za siedem cyfr
 i za guziczek
 za swiatelko
 moge miec
 drganie na membranie.
 A chcialabym w wysokiej trawie
 gdzie chodza zuczki biedroneczki
 a chcialabym cie miec na sianie
 -- smieszne zdziebelka w twoich wlosach
 i chcialabym cie miec w karecie
 gdzie zasuniete firaneczki
 donikad spiesza konie
 a ty calujesz moje dlonie
 i moje usta
 moje piersi
 i nie ma siedmiu kpiacych cyfr
 jest tylko siedem gwiazd na niebie
 i siedem gor
 i siedem nocy ...


 into jingling bells
 and rings of wire
 whirled somewhere under the ground
 you are
 -- as I was taught at school --
 the frequency of vibrations on tin
 I can have you
 for seven digits
 and for a button
 for a light
 I can have
 a vibrant strain of the membrane
 And I would rather have you in tall grass
 where ladybugs and beetles take their walks
 and I would rather have you in the hay
 -- with funny little stalks stuck in your hair
 and I would have you in a horse-drawn carriage
 with curtains pulled together
 trotting to nowhere
 the horses would rush
 and you'd place kisses on my hands
 my lips
 and breasts
 and there would be no seven mocking digits
 but only seven stars upon the skies
 and seven mountains
 and seven nights ... (11)

At times the eroticism in Frajlich's poetry extends even to the sphere of nature and cosmology. In the poem titled "A Cosmic Prognosis for February 29th" ("Prognoza Kosmiczna na 29.II.") Frajlich personifies the planet Venus, presenting it as lying in an erotic pose not far from the planet Saturn, and writes of the inevitability of their separation. (12) In yet another recent untitled poem, the eroticism of nature merges with that of the poetic persona: "yet the lunar blood / rises in a tide / and in the stalks / in the arteries / in the milky ways / I rise" ("a przeciez ksiezycowa krew / przyplywem wzbiera / i w lodygach / w tetnicach / w mlecznych drogach / wschodze"). (13)

In the poem "Indian Summer," the erotically charged lines "and to pass in fullness / with clamor / and the boiling of pigment in blood" ("I przemijac pelnia / z loskotem / gotowaniem pigmentu we krwi") reflect both the short-lived ecstatic state and the sense of transitoriness of love and life. (14) Frajlich revisits repeatedly the theme of the inevitable exits from love and the relentless passage of time. Exile becomes a metaphor for love, for life, or for human experience in general.


Yet Frajlich does not see exile as a bane, nor does she despair. On the contrary, her poetry gives repeated evidence of self-consolation, of adaptation through an active cognitive involvement, through an intellectual probing of circumstances, which leads to acceptance and to a re-creation of her self, so that she can cope. Perhaps that is the salient feature of her verse which makes it so appealing to other emigres. She has recorded in her poems the slow, painful, complicated process of adaptation to exile, but has not ignored the rewards. She has shown that acceptance is possible. The poet has rendered her resulting redefinitions in personal as well as philosophical and, occasionally, political terms.

Frajlich's untitled poem beginning with the lines "Love exists, / but hidden under moss. / One needs to find it, dig it up, blow on it" ("Milosc jest, / lecz ukryta pod mchem. / Trzeba znalezc odkopac odchuchac") can be read in no other way but as an affirmation of love and its presence. (15) Her views on emigration have also metamorphosed into willing acceptance. From a homeless and bewildered person fearful of forgetting the landscapes of her native land (and bemoaning the need to forget and yet the impossibility of forgetting), she moved through the stage of recognition that she is a person without a permanent address, and -- while recognizing that Polish culture is closest to her heart -- ultimately accepted the United States as her existential homeland. Even mere fragments of her poems indicate the significant transitions and her apparent reconciliation with exile. In an early poem titled "Acclimatization" she wrote: "I forget meticulously / I forget scrupulously / my native landscape / my daily landscape" ("Zapominam dokladnie / zapominam sumiennie / moj krajobraz ojczysty / moj krajobraz codzienny"). (16)

Frajlich's poem "Bez adresu" (Without an Address), in which she refers to I. B. Singer's statement that each writer should have an address (his has consistently been Krochmalna Street in pre-World War II Warsaw), records another stage of her adaptation. The poem includes these lines:
 I, too, am looking for my street
 the one and only
 in my waking hours, in my dreams, in my despair
 between dreams and wakefulness
 in the magic kaleidoscope
 various streets mingle
 their smell, their crowds I have under my skin
 and the nocturnal hue of their silence
 hangs over the window sill
 like threads of Indian summer
 but their names have faded
 and numbers over the doors fell off
 who knows
 what's mine what belongs to others
 and which address
 is the address. (17)

But in an untitled poem included in her volume Ktory las (Which Forest; 1986), she establishes a contrast between a city from her past, which she declares no longer hers, and her current domicile, New York City, which she presents as her own. Here we read: "Mine is the island cut into squares of streets / the crowd / winds blowing from the bay / winds from the rivers" ("Moja jest wyspa na kwadraty pocieta ulic / tlum / wiejace od zatoki wiatry / od rzek wiatry"; my emphasis -- R.G.). (18)

While the past is always with her and makes its presence palpable in her poetry, it no longer has a devastating grip. In a recent poem titled "Taniec-Miasto" (Dance-City), Frajlich presented her childhood city of Szczecin as her Arcadia. The opening lines run as follows:
 My Arcadia put together hastily
 between one exile and the other
 is just as beautiful, just as noble
 as an ancient manor with pear and linden trees
 my Arcadia built of boards left by the Germans
 with each plate from a different set
 holds in it the silence of fullness -- the fullness of silence

 (Moja Arkadia sklecona napredce
 pomiedzy jednym a drugim wygnaniem
 jest rownie piekna, jest rownie dostojna
 jak dwor prastary z grusza i lipami
 moja Arkadia z poniemieckich desek
 z kazdym talerzem z innego serwisu
 ma w sobie cisze pelni -- pelnie ciszy) (19)

This poem is a testimony to the poet's integration of her legacy, of having made her past an integral and acceptable part of her self. Frajlich's sense of identity has undergone a significant evolution. From a Polish Jew bemoaning the loss of her Polish homeland, she has evolved into a mature individual with a complex yet integrated sense of her own identity.

The ultimate acknowledgment of Frajlich's rootedness in the United States, of the fact that she is finally "placed" rather than displaced, is the speech she delivered a few years ago at the New York cemetery where her father is buried. The occasion was the unveiling of her father's monument. Here is the pertinent passage from her speech:
 The dictionary states that the word monument is related to memory, it is to
 remind.... It is lasting evidence of someone or something. Of course, we
 the family don't need the monument to remember someone we loved. We are the
 walking monuments of this person, often without realizing it. We emulate
 him in our being. And we transport his essence to our children. But our
 memory disappears with us, and this is probably why we need this stone. For
 us this stone has one more significance. This is the first marked grave of
 my father's entire family. His mother, his sisters, and his half-brother
 were killed by the Nazis during the war, and they had no grave. The
 cemetery where his father was buried before World War II was razed. So in
 this context it is a celebration of hope that this memorial stone will not
 be upturned, and it will testify to my father's memory for a long time.
 Also, in a strange way it marks our rooting in this soil. (My emphasis --


Despite the declared "rooting," the credo "pokochac bezdroza" (to come to love the pathless tracks) is still one that Frajlich must follow. Recognition of who one is tends to be an ongoing process, whether one is geographically settled in a concrete place or not. Just as in the sphere of erotic relationships there is never a lasting status quo, so life in general is in a state of constant flux. Thus, it is not surprising that Frajlich continues to fluctuate and evolve. In December 1998, for instance, she wrote a poem titled "Wiersz noworoczny" (A New Year's Poem), in which she delighted in a sense of calm, of having arrived, of having a peaceful home. Yet only a few months later, in an untitled poem of July 1999, Frajlich revealed a very different and a much more unsettled mood: "everything is a punishment / for having thought / I've already arrived" ("Wszystko jest kara / Za to ze myslalam / Ze juz dotarlam"). (20)

Frajlich inscribes in her poetry the changing nature of her awareness. She isolates and describes her fleeting emotions, their flavors and shadings. Her inner world and her wisdom shine through her highly autobiographical work, revealing the evolving concept of herself as a full-blooded woman and an emigre. The poem "Thanatos and Eros" points up the limits of the evolution.
 I shall die where I've been sown
 where fate has tossed me
 the earth will absorb my body
 I'll absorb the earth with my body
 as if I came to love it.
 As if I came to love it.

 (Umre tam gdzie mnie posialo
 gdzie mnie rzucil los
 ziemia wchlonie moje cialo
 ziemie wchlone swoim cialem
 tak jak gdybym pokochala.
 Jak gdybym pokochala.) (21)

This poem, like much of Anna Frajlich's oeuvre, demonstrates most effectively the inextricable connection between eroticism and exile in her poetry, as well as her "eroticization" of exile -- including death, the ultimate exile.

Empire State College, SUNY

(1) See e.g. the following comments: Jan Kott's remark on the cover of Anna Frajlich, Between Dawn and the Wind, Austin (Texas), Host Publications, 1991; Stanistaw Balinski, "Poetka odjezdzajaca w swiat ...," Dziennik Polski (London), 23 March 1977, p. 4; Maja Elzbieta Cybulska, "W moich oczach," Dziennik Polski, 9 April 1994, p. 9; Joanna Rostropowicz, "Poezja nie straconego czasu," Ex Libris (supplement to the Warsaw daily Zycie Warszawy), no. 65, December 1994; and Maya Peretz's review of Frajlich's Ogrodem i ogrodzeniem in the Polish Review, 40:1 (1995), pp. 111-12. Among other writers and critics who have offered very complimentary commentary on Frajlich's poetry are Renata Gorczynska, Florian Smieja, M. Bronski, and Witold Wirpsza.

(2) Among the younger Polish critics who have heaped praise on Frajlich's poetry are Wojciech Ligeza (Tygiel Kultury [Lodz], 27:3, 1998), Anna Wegrzyniakowa (in her volume Ktokolwiek jestes bez ojczyzny (Lodz, 1995), and Stanislaw Podkowinski (in his book Kocham wiec jestem. Moreover, Wlodzimierz Bolecki included some of Frajlich's poetry in his anthology Snuc milosc: Polska poezja milosna XV-XX wieku.

(3) Stanislaw Wygodzki, "Listy do Anny Frajlich," Kontury (Tel Aviv), 1988, no. 9, p. 55. This and all subsequent translations of both poetry and prose in this paper are mine [RG].

(4) Anna Frajlich, Between Dawn and the Wind: Select Poetry, tr. & ed. Regina Grol, Austin (Texas), Host, 1992, pp. 22-13.

(5) Ibid., pp. 14-15.

(6) Ibid., pp. 78-79.

(7) Ibid., pp. 90-91.

(8) Ibid., pp. 16-27.

(9) I am indebted to Alexander Fiut, particularly his essay "In the Grip of Eros" (on Czeslaw Milosz's poetry) in The Eternal Moment (University of California Press, 1990), for his discussion of the power of Eros.

(10) See Anna Frajlich, "Kobiety Renoira," in her Ogrodem i ogrodzeniem, Warsaw, Czytelnik, 1993, p. 35; "New York, November and Rose," in her Between Dawn and the Wind, pp. 72-73; and "The Ocean Divides Us," ibid., pp. 64-65.

(11) Frajlich, Between Dawn and the Wind, pp. 56-57.

(12) Anna Frajlich, "Prognoza kosmiczna na 29 lutego," Tygodnik Powszechny, 8 March 1992, p. 7(13)

(13) From an unpublished poem provided to me by the author.

(14) The title poem of the volume Indian Summer, Albany (N.Y.), Sigma, 1982, p. 32.

(15) Ibid., p. 42.

(16) Frajlich, Between Dawn and the Wind, pp. 18-29.

(17) Anna Frajlich, "Bez adresu," in her Ogrodem i ogrodzeniem, p. 64.

(18) Anna Frajlich, untitled poem in her Ktory las, London, Oficyna Poetow i Malarzy, 1986, p. 32.

(19) Anna Frajlich, "Taniec-Miasto," Przeglad Polski (New York), 29 May 1997, p. 8.

(20) Anna Frajlich, "Wiersz noworoczny," a recent unpublished poem. The untitled poem is included in her Znow szuka mnie wiatr, Warsaw, Czytelnik, 2001, p. 19.

(21) Anna Frajlich, "Tanatos i Eros," in her Znow szuka mnie wiatr, p. 23.

REGINA GROL is Professor of Comparative Literature at Empire State College, State University of New York. A graduate of Warsaw University (Poland), she holds a Ph.D. (with distinction) from the State University of New York at Binghamton. A scholar and a critic, she is also an accomplished translator of Polish literature. Her translation of Ambers Aglow: An Anthology of Contemporary Polish Women's Poetry (1981-1995) was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. She is spending the 2002-2 academic year as a Fulbright research scholar at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.
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Author:Grol, Regina
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EXPO
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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