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Sisters are sisters: identity in an anonymous middle English poem.

The early 15th-century riddle poem "I have a Song suster" (poem No. 29 in MS Sloane 2593) is widely anthologized; however, relatively little has been written about it. What do we really know about this poem?
   I haue a Song suster fer beSondyn be se
   many be be drowryis bat che sente me

   che sente me be cherye withoutyn ony ston
   & so che dede [be] dowe withoutyn ony bon

   Sche sente me be brere withoutyn ony rynde
   Sche bad me loue my lemman withoute longgyng

   how xuld ony cherye be withoute ston
   & how xuld ony dowe ben withoute bon

   how xuld ony brere ben withoute rynde
   how xuld [I] loue myn lemman without longyng

   Quan be cherye was a flour: ban hadde it non ston
   quan be dowe was an ey: ban hadde it non bon

   Quan be brere was onbred: ban hadde it non rynd
   quan be maydyn haSt bat che louit: che is without longin[g] (1)


The fifth word, "suster," is ambiguous, although modern scholars tend to assume it means "beloved" or "sweetheart." The Middle English Dictionary (MED) actually lists the poem "I have a Song suster" as one of its examples for the third definition of "suster," which is "sweetheart." And yet the primary meaning of the highly polysemous word "suster" in the MED is "female sibling." This poem is ambiguous enough for its "suster" to fit either definition.

Dictionaries themselves are interpretive acts, so it is not unreasonable to question the MED's assertion regarding this poem, particularly since "I have a Song suster" and many medieval lyrics come to us with little or no information about the poem's author and intended audience. (2) * We must look at internal evidence to decide what "suster" means for this poem, to decide whether reading "suster" as "female sibling" can be sustained throughout its lines. This viable alternative gives us a more pronounced sense of female agency and a more subtle understanding of eros. When we consider that the poem's speaker is a woman, the sister is her sister, and the speaker's lover is a third figure removed from the immediate dramatic situation, we see the speaker analyzing eros rather than participating in it, a scene of recollection rather than one of seduction. This reading coheres with the poem itself, but it does not preclude other metaphoric readings. Moreover, in exploring a re-cast voice and its implications, I am imitating what the speaker does--proposing that a riddle already exists in the situation at hand and making that riddle explicit to re-envision its motives more clearly. The poem asks us to explore such ambiguities.

The few commentators who have written on the poem reinforce the MED's narrow interpretation. William Miller's commentary to his critical edition gives the fullest consideration to this reading while other commentaries say little or nothing about the poem (Miller 263-65). Raymond Oliver reprints the poem as an example of a riddle making a "large structure" for a poem but does not give an explicit interpretation of the poem (10809). R. H. Robbins aligns the poem with poems of paradox and "nonsense poems," also without attempting elucidation of the riddle (240-41). Theodore Silverstein writes that the poem is "connected with love" (128), Karin Boklund-Lagopoulou describes the poem's situation as "a young couple in love" (74), and most recently Thomas G. Duncan glosses "suster" as "sister" in his edition of the poem but does not include any explanation (178). (3)

Arthur K. Moore notes that later poets and singers have made a variety of later adaptations of the poem, and he implies a reading that would identify the speaker as a male lover receiving gifts from his beloved by saying that "Song suster" resonates with another poem in Sloane 2593, "I have an newe gardyn" (161, 181). (4) This poem, however, although it also presents riddles and is in rhyming couplets, has little in common with "Song suster." "I have an newe gardyn" is explicit, leaving no ambiguities for the reader. It depicts a male speaker who impregnates his beloved and ends with the birth of their child. Its tone is an easy humor that culminates in a boisterous conclusion, whereas "I have a Song suster" resists such topical and tonal clarity. Frank Sidgwick identifies one of the "Song suster" poem's later versions as the "Ballad of Captain Wedderburn," in which a reluctant bride uses the riddles of the "Song suster" to delay marriage to the Captain (162-69). John Burrow also briefly comments on later adaptations of the poem, calling it a "love-song" (English Verse 295-96). Later adaptations of the poem like "Captain Wedderburn," which clearly depict a woman presenting the riddles to a man, may partially account for the general modern impression that the Middle English source also depicts such a scene. However, poems with extensive histories of adaptations, like this one, must be read without our knowledge of texts from the centuries between the poem's appearance and our own, unless we wish to carefully read those poems as additional analyses and carefully delineate what they can and cannot tell us.

Even with the variety of commentators on the poem listed above, none of them actually writes extensively on it. Nevertheless, considering the implications of their readings together reveals the generally received interpretation of the poem, and interpretation that relies on an imposed metaphor: "suster" is "beloved." That metaphorical assumption makes the following observations about the poem sustainable: (1) the speaker is male, (2) he is the lover in the relationship that the poem depicts, and (3) his beloved is the "Song suster" sending him the objects that constitute the riddles the speaker interprets. Furthermore if "suster" means "beloved," then the poem indicates a sexual or potentially sexual relationship between the speaker and the "suster." "Suster" in this sense can be seen in other examples of Middle English literature. One unambiguous example is from "The Wyf of Bath's Prologue," where Jankyn addresses Alisoun as "suster" with regret and affection after having struck her on the head (1.804).

Alisoun's narration reiterates in a variety of ways that Jankyn is her husband--that "suster" means "beloved"--but in "I have a Song suster" the meaning is not explicitly available from context. We need to reexamine the poem itself. The entirely reasonable interpretation that "suster" means "beloved" in this lyric requires a metaphoric trajectory; it requires us to supply material that the poem does not actually present. That such a trajectory appeals to so many various commentators may indicate our contemporary impulse to read metaphorically from our own conditions of cultural ambiguity. But this trajectory may obscure interpretations that were available to medieval readers.

"Drowryis" in line two can be read to accelerate such a trajectory, but, like "suster," this word can also signify widely, including denotations not inherently involved in an erotic scenario. "Druerie" in the MED can be "a token of love or affection, a keepsake," or "anything highly prized; a treasure orjewel." These definitions allow for the word to be used often in religious contexts as well as to describe ornate clothing. In short, the word works similarly to our modern word "treasure," which does not necessarily mean treasures of the heart. (5)

Once we have allowed for "suster" and "drowryis" to signify more widely, we can see that the tone of the poem also suggests siblings in parallel positions rather than lover and beloved. This poem lacks the immediacy and passion of a clearly erotic lyric like "Westron Wynde," which depicts feverish longing and bodies touching: "Cryst yf my love were in my Armes / and I yn my bed Agayne" (qtd. in Frey 259). [left arrow] Instead the tone of "Song suster" is subdued, and the speaker performs an act of analysis that is the business of someone who has moved herself away a little from passion's edge.

The most compelling evidence for reading the "Song suster" as a female sibling and for reading the speaker as a woman is in the poem's structure. The incongruity of the fourth riddle, its abstraction and its refusal to utterly reveal its enigma, unlike the riddles of the cherry, dove, and branch, asks for scrutiny. William Miller writes of the last line, "if man, because of separation, must long, he at least can love, and by love he is able to imaginatively unite lover and beloved as the narrator does when he answers his own riddle ... by changing the subject from himself to the maiden he longs for" (264). But the poem more simply suggests that the last line and the three lines before it list what the speaker received from the young sister: a flower, an egg, a seed (it seems), and a note. The speaker does answer her "own riddle," but she does so with the materials that prompted the riddle, materials authored by the young sister. The speaker, in the poem's last line, identifies herself.

The poem actually presents two sets of riddles. Set one is what the sister sent, which prompted the poem and which we see in the last four lines. The objects and a message (after all, the speaker interprets these drowries as something "sche bad" her to do) are riddles the sender directs to the speaker. Set two is the speaker's depiction-interpretation of what she receives (which takes up the poem's bulk--lines 1-10). So the speaker is giving a tender statement of physical love that does wish "we could be as unconsciously sexual as Nature," but she does so to gently critique her sister who, based on her drowries, believes we are "as unconsciously sexual as Nature." Moreover, the speaker's interpretive act, which in its turn generates another enigma, shows that the speaker's concern is more attuned to how language functions rather than to a love affair with her lover, her sister, or anyone else. (7)

With that in mind, we could still read the characters as lover and beloved; and Miller's interpretation of the incongruity of the fourth riddle is the strong possibility. An alternative possibility is that the incongruity derives from an identification of the speaker with the sender, which would feminize the speaker and ask us to reinterpret "suster" in its more frequently used sense, as well as reinterpret "drowries" in its non-erotic sense. (8) We would then have two women characters contrasting their views on the same idea. The speaker identifies herself with the maiden in the course of the poem through two parallels: syntactically in the last line "the maiden has what she loves" becomes "how should I" when recast earlier in the poem as a riddle, (9) and figuratively when through the same motion she identifies herself with the sender's drowries. I like Miller's interpretation of this as "imaginatively [uniting] lover and beloved," but I see two hindrances for that reading. One, the masculine element the lover as speaker would represent is reduced to "bat"--"a relative pronoun with ellipsis of antecedent" (Miller 264). An ellipsis of one of the two sexes seems more of a regression to nascency rather than a fruition from the two sexesjoining together. The speaker has after all imagined the fruition for us through the poem's more apparent set of riddles. Such a regression to nascency would be wholly incongruent with the motive that created this set of riddles. The second hindrance is that the objects themselves suggest identification with a "maiden" virginity. As things "onbred," or unborn, and therefore as things that depend on a maternal parent for sustenance, they at least metonymically suggest femininity if they are not synecdochal representatives. By juxtaposing this fourth riddle with the other three, we have a further implication of the speaker identified with femininity.

What I would like to assume is that the sister has sent these objects as gifts celebrating the speaker's love relationship, that the speaker reflects upon them in writing the poem, and that the poem then comes to embody the speaker's perceptions about two relationships she is involved in--the erotic one with her lover, and the familial one with her sister, the sender. The poem has, among other divisions, three sections--situation and riddling description of objects (stanzas 1-3), questioning the riddling description of objects (stanzas 4-5), and answering the riddles (stanzas 6-7). What is essential in understanding the poem's dramatic situation is that the third section--stanzas 6-7--depicts what happened between the speaker and the young sister--what the gifts were that the speaker turned into a new set of riddles. What the sister gave the speaker is a flower, an egg, a seed, and a message. The message is of course the last line, in which the young sister calls the speaker a maiden.

Superficially a riddle gratifies the general tendency to want an unambiguous, possibly simplistic, conception of metaphor through its logic, but in "I haue a Song suster," the speaker projects that logic onto desire itself, by metaphor, and the result is a startling image of the nature of eros. Through the poem's formal parallels we can infer its tropes: loving without longing is like a cherry without a stone, a dove without bones, and an unborn briar. Longing is the stone, i.e. the cherry's core, its seed for reproduction. Longing is also the bone of the dove, what gives it shape and allows its muscles and other properties to work (through resistance and adherence to the bones), and it is the branch of the briar, which has a similar core or skeleton function. Longing gives eros form. While these tropes are intriguing themselves, even more intriguing is the speaker's presentation of them as a riddle--something hinted at, the communication between her and her sister that they more generally represent.

Longing is essential, the older sister seems to teach the younger. Anne Carson writes, "The Greek word eros denotes 'want,' 'lack,' 'desire for that which is missing.' The lover wants what he does not have. It is by definition impossible for him to have what he wants if, as soon as it is had, it is no longer wanting" (10). And the speaker seems to understand this. It is hard to know, however, what exactly the younger sister's riddle is saying: should the speaker settle into domesticity, which in a sense would be having "bat che louit" and then love would ripen like the other riddles into a fullness, a love that has moved beyond the vicissitudes of new love? The sentiment then would be something like this: if you "have" your love, then at least on a literal level you may have him or her through a commitment like marriage, which generally brings children and in this way is parallel with the other tropes. Maybe the speaker's sister means for her to outgrow this eros with all its longing and mature into a state of love she sees as having satiation.

This latter interpretation aligns with the objects of the riddle in an obvious sense, and it also supplies a reason for the speaker to make those objects into a riddle herself--the reason is to critique the young sister's message. That is the essential point--this poem is really about the speaker and the complexities she has created or articulated about herself. The sister's riddle set is relatively simple: here is a flower, an egg, a seed, and a message that says when a maiden has what she loves she is without longing. In other words, here are things that have the potential to grow into maturity. Maturity is procreation, maturity is without longing, so be like these things, and follow their paths of fruition, and be without longing. The speaker's framing of the riddle, however, answers this riddle set with a paradox that is probably beyond her sister's scope. She presents each object in its fullness to our minds' eyes first and then has us reverse each one's growth for the component answers (through the "was," which is different from saying, for instance, "it came from") and she does the same to her sister's message with a startling effect.

If we treat the message in parallel with the objects, then what the speaker's sister actually said in her message was the ending of the poem: "quan be maydyn haSt bat che louit: che is without longing." This line is parallel to the poem's other three riddle revelations of the flower, the egg, and the seed. The speaker is the one who gives us the idea of fulfillment in each object, the idea for each that we see first as an audience, the idea that "I xuld loue myn lemman without longing"--which can be construed somewhat differently in meaning from the poem's closing line and differently from her sister's probable intention--an idea derived from her sister's message, just as she initially shows us a cherry without a stone, a dove without bones, and a briar without a branch, all similarly derived. The speaker knows that love without longing is only possible in an immature state, that longing paradoxically is essential to eros's fullness.

Far from being the "point" of the poem, the answer-as-finale, the riddle answers in the poem's last lines are--for the speaker--prompts; they make a claim she finds questionable. And they prompt her to consider desire, to ask "how should I love my lover without longing?" By presenting the familiar-unfamiliar quality of the other tropes--a cherry without a stone, etc.--the speaker has prepared us to see that the true nature of eros is lack. The conclusiveness of the closing lines in fact serves to reinforce the inconclusive, contradictory nature of desire. Moreover, these lines work against closure; the speaker uses them to bring us into the problem of eros. They are the beginning of this discourse and not the end. In this way, in resisting closure, the speaker's critique of her sister's directive imitates the very motion of eros itself. (10)

Additionally, the how-should-this-be phrasing through which the speaker presents her riddles, and so presents her interpretive response to her sister's gift, is also worth noting. The phrasing immediately does a powerful, vital thing to our initial perception: it aligns our perspective with the speaker's by presenting love and longing as a riddle of the natural world that we may experience but never fully understand. The parallel phrasing, the debate between characters who are not fully revealed, and the competing rhetorical and metaphorical analyses of desire become the almost-magic qualities that link the objects for us as listeners.

Two significant shifts occur in the poem's last line that emphasize that the speaker's true subject is the limitation of desire. The first is the verb "haSt" and the second is the pronoun "bat." "HaSt" is not the "was" of the riddle answers repeated above it. "Was" shows us a state of being--e.g., the cherry was a flower, and therefore was not a cherry but the potential to become a cherry. In that example we are simply trading one noun for the other. "HaSt," on the other hand, is present possession, and so we get to keep both nouns at once; the maiden has what she loves: both what she loves--presumably another person--and who she is are connected and coexisting. The person she loves is not a substitute for her (with a potential of becoming her) as in the previous tropes. Both nouns--both people--are here according to the speaker's sister. And when both people are here, then they are without longing. That repetition must occur to stage the riddle draws attention to everything repeated, and here the speaker wants us to hear this "was"-"haSt" difference, because it gives us a clue to the reason for her rather indirect uses of the language--i.e., disguising the objects as riddles and paraphrasing her sister's message by saying in its place, "sche bad me loue my lemman withoute longgyng." To be parallel with the other answers to the riddle, the last line could read "when the maiden had whom she loves, she was without longing." The present tense was surely how the sister wrote the message, but the speaker wants us to hear a little dissonance; she introduces the past tense into the other riddles, so that she can hint at her critique of the sentiment. Through the poem's structure she shows her sister misreading her own tropes, and the speaker structures these tropes within the poem to align us with the critique.

"bat" also indicates the speaker's analysis of eros. "Quan be maydyn haSt bat che louit: che is without longing" would more neatly align with its preceding, parallel riddle solutions by substituting the phrase "her lemman" for "bat che louit," but the gestural, vague quality of the pronoun "bat" neatly reminds us of what language cannot do--it cannot create perfect understanding, it must always be re-modulated. "hat," "what," "who," "to or with or about whom"? We work back through the poem to locate "bat's" referent, and that eludes us. "bat che louit" is subdued and obscure, even disaffected; it lacks the immediacy of "lemman." The pronoun's capacity to be at once determinate and indeterminate allows it to be a trope for eros.

What we gain in reading this poem as a communication between two female siblings is in the speaker's analysis of desire: the sister's lack fully coincides with the limit of language, even if the sister does not realize it. The speaker does not imaginatively unite "himself' and beloved as Miller argues, but she shows her sister and anyone subjected to eros bobbing back to the surface of understanding, passing through another episode that only sustains the hope of amorous fulfillment without actually achieving that fulfillment. By stepping outside of this cycle and articulating its mechanism, the speaker demonstrates a nuanced understanding of eros. She refuses that hope eros offers, revealing the limitations of erotic desire rather than reveling in them. She moves outside the self-sustaining sweet-bitter cycle of eros. Her movement makes the poem not yet another piece in the tradition of poems hoping for fulfillment of love but instead a critique of the function and limitation of desire. Hoping to fulfill desire is unnatural, the speaker says, just as reversing the life of a dove is unnatural. Reading the poem on its own terms as a set of riddles working backwards to reveal and critique another set of riddles means reading the poem as a dialogue of opposition and not one of accord. The poem exposes eros to us as a condition of confusion, of deferred impossibilities, not of invigoration

"How should this be?" is the question of a rational mind. We should allow for the possibility that this question belongs to a woman, that our modern reading of this poem may be under the sway of a metaphorical trajectory that not only determines the gender of the speaker but has a rather disturbing presumption behind it: the lie that men are bound to intellectual pursuits and that women are bound to emotional and bodily ones. The speaker's intelligent and perceptive metaphor for eros--that the limit of language is eros--could very well be a woman's invention. After all, Sappho, the poet who first called love "bittersweet," suggests the metaphor when she uses language most artfully to describe the speechlessness that eros causes her: "I cannot speak, / My tongue sticks to my dry mouth, / Thin fire spreads beneath my skin" (74). (11) The strong resistance to hearing a woman's voice in "I have a Song suster" is the residual reading of subsequent versions of the poem made into the voices of men. (12)

Although the MS Sloane 2593 is relatively small, with 37 leaves, its importance is great: of the 74 poems it contains, only twenty-one appear in other manuscripts (Miller 1-5). "I have a Song suster" only survives in this manuscript, a fact that impresses upon us how little we know about the poem. The manuscript dates from the fifteenth century, but our knowledge of its owners or its compiler only reaches back to its inclusion in the manuscript collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753).

William Ian Miller's dissertation, published in 1975, is the first critical edition of the manuscript. In other words, we have had much less critical attention directed at these poems than has been directed at more famous texts from the Middle Ages, a condition that should give us pause whenever we feel certain about what a given poem means or does. The Middle English poems of MS Sloane 2593 survive with little context, but we can to some degree assess our own context as readers of the poem and our own modes of reading, which may privilege one reading over another.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. A Lover's Discourse. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978. Print.

Boklund-Lagopoulou, Karin. "I Have a Yong Suster Popular Song and the Middle English Lyric. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2002. Print.

Burrow, J. A. English Verse 1300-1500. New York: Longman, 1977. Print. Carson, Anne. Eros the Bittersweet. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1998. Print.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd edition. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Print.

"Druerie." The Middle English Dictionary. University of Michigan, 2001. Web. 17 July 2014.

Duncan, Thomas G. Medieval English Lyrics and Carols. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2013. Print.

Frey, Charles. "Interpreting 'Western Wind.'" ELH 43.3 (1976): 259-278. Web. 10 June 2014.

Marie de France. The Lais of Marie de France. Trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.

Miller, William Ian. "The Poetry of MS. Sloane 2593: A Critical Edition." Diss. Yale University, 1975. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Web. 25 Mar. 2010.

Moore, Arthur K. The Secular Lyric in Middle English. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1951. Print.

Oliver, Raymond. Poems Without Names: The English Lyric, 1200-1500. Berkeley: U. of California P, 1970. Print.

Opie, Iona, and Peter Opie. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951. Print.

Robbins, R. H. Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952. Print.

Sappho. "He seems to be a god, that man." Seven Greeks. Trans. Guy Davenport. New York: New Directions, 1995. 69-116.Print.

Sidgwick, Frank. Popular Ballads of the Olden Time. London: A. H. Bullen, 1904. Print.

Silverstein, Theodore. English Lyrics before 1500. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1971. Print.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Poems of the Pearl Manuscript. Ed. Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron. Exeter: U. of Exeter P, 1995. Print.

"Suster." The Middle English Dictionary. University of Michigan, 2001. Web. 17 July 2014.

(1) Peter and Iona Opie published a facsimile of the manuscript page on which the poem appears in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. I also referred to William Ian Miller's dissertation, "The Poetry of MS. Sloane 2593: A Critical Edition," in making my editorial choices above. The underlining shows letters superscripted in the manuscript. The poem is unique to Sloane 2593 and has no title. Some editors arrange the poem into quatrains, perhaps because they interpret the colons that mark caesuras in each of the last four lines as justification for the arrangement. At least three reasons exist for leaving the poem in couplets: (1) A brace to the right of each pair of lines draws attention to the rhymes and suggests that the pairs are units. (2) We cannot assume that the mid-line colons of the last four lines indicate anything other than pauses, particularly since no punctuation occurs at the caesuras in the first eight lines. These colons also precede the revelation of each riddle, suggesting a performance note rather than a format note--that is, a dramatic pause as the performer provides each riddle's solution. (3) As Miller observes, we cannot even be sure that the last four lines were intended to be united with the first ten, although most modern editors do believe these last lines are part of the poem, and my argument in this paper also assumes and maintains the unity of these lines. A line space exists, however, between lines ten and eleven, and the manuscript also uses line spaces to divide other poems that clearly are distinct from one another.

(2) J. A. Burrow's "Poems Without Context," although analyzing the Rawlinson lyrics, details the various interpretive problems that anonymous medieval lyrics present (Essays on Medieval Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984. 1-26).

(3) Duncan's gloss is odd, because--without explanation--it reiterates the problem, since some modern dialects of English also use "sister" to mean "sweetheart." Consider, for example, Bob Dylan's "Oh, Sister" (1975).

(4) He refers to "yong suster" as "The Riddle Song."

(5) An especially ambiguous use of "drurye" in ME occurs in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the word signifies Sir Gawain's green sash (l. 2033). It seems to be the amorous love-token from a lady that a knight would wear in tournament or in battle. But Gawain has resolutely refused to be the lady's lover, and, as we find out later, the lady herself is only feigning erotic advances.

(6) The poem's editing and interpretive history are discussed by Charles Frey, and I have used Frey's transcription of the poem here.

(7) Arguing that the speaker is more concerned with language itself would be in line with medieval attitudes regarding interpretation. A famous example occurs when Marie de France, in the prologue of her Lais, writes, "It was customary for the ancients, in the books which they wrote (Priscian testifies to this), to express themselves very obscurely so that those in later generations, who had to learn them, could provide a gloss for the text and put the finishing touches to their meaning" (41).

(8) i.e., that it could be given to one, not by a lover, but by a friend celebrating one's love. On the other hand, as Miller notes, when used in the singular the word can be a euphemism for sexual intercourse.

(9) In the sense that even casting oneself in opposition with another is a sort of identification.

(10) Roland Barthes observes that the lover might say, "In reality it is unimportant that I have no likelihood of really being fulfilled (I am quite willing for this to be the case). Only the will to fulfillment shines, indestructible, before me" (55).

(11) Anne Carson observes that Sappho is the first writer to call eros "bittersweet" (3).

(12) A famous, parallel case is Catullus's remaking of the Sappho poem that I cite above, a remaking that casts the poem's speaker as a male.
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Date:Sep 22, 2015
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