Reading Melvin B. Tolson's Harlem Gallery:
Alchemy, Codes,


the Key to the Secret of Life

Jon Woodson

Do not scholars tear their beards—vex
their disciples over the Palestinian and Byzantine
punctuation of the Masoretic texts?

(Harlem Gallery, "Omega" lns. 4077-79)

      It is not problematic that Tolson's interpreters cannot read Harlem Gallery; the problem is that they think that by not reading the poem they are reading it. Michael Bérubé makes this comment in "Masks, Margins, and African American Modernism: Melvin Tolson's Harlem Gallery": "The leader's name is "Bishop" Gladstone Coffin (133). What Tolson meant by echoing in an Uncle Tom minister's name the figures of Henry Sloane Coffin and William Gladstone is, frankly, beyond me" (69 n.10). Rather famously Ludwig Wittgenstein observes in the Tractatus—"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." He did not say —"Whereof one cannot speak, one must write a snide footnote." Tolson makes it very clear in Harlem Gallery that we cannot read his poem because we are asleep; the proposition that "man is asleep" is the starting point of what Gurdjieff taught, so being a follower of Gurdjieff, it is Tolson's starting place. The poem begins "The Harlem Gallery, an Afric pepper bird, / awakes me at a people's dusk of dawn" (lns.1-2). In the film The Matrix Nemo wakes up to find that he is a battery. The esotericist G.I. Gurdjieff calls this shocking awakening "the terror of the situation."1 The terror of the situation is at the core of Tolson's poem, where we awaken to the condition of blackness as a concrete manifestation of all of the other existential terrors. And the doctrine of the battery in The Matrix was borrowed from Gurdjieff, where he presents it as "reciprocal maintenance," the idea that man's role in the universe is to produce "food" for higher levels of life in the cosmos. Gurdjieff taught that there is a problem in the food chain, since human beings no longer produce the type of "food" vibrations that the higher form requires:

Man is simply unable to draw upon the conscious energies passing through him, which in the cosmic scheme, are those possessing the actual power of causal efficacy. Man does not and cannot participate consciously in the great universal order, but instead is tossed about en masse for purposes limited to the functions of organic life on earth as a whole. Even in this relatively limited sphere—limited, that is, when compared to man's latent destiny—mankind has become progressively incapable of fulfilling its function, a point that Gurdjieff strongly emphasized in his own writings. This aspect of the Ray of Creation—namely, that the "fate of the earth" is somehow bound up with the possibility of the inner evolution of individual men and women—resonates with the contemporary sense of impending planetary disasters. How are human beings to change this state of affairs and begin drawing on the universal conscious energies which they are built to absorb but which now pass through them untransformed? How is humanity to assume its proper place in the great chain of being? Gurdjieff's answer to these questions actually circumscribes the central purpose of his teaching—namely, that human life on earth may now stand at a major transitional point, comparable perhaps to the fall of the great civilizations of the past, and that development of the whole being of man (rather than one or another of the separate human functions) is the only thing that can permit man to pass through this transition in a manner worthy of human destiny. (Needleman "Information")

     The transformation of these universal conscious energies is what is known as alchemy, and Tolson thought that he was an alchemist. Harlem Gallery is an alchemical text. The poem is 4,201 lines long, and the number of lines was derived from Gurdjieff's description of man's place in the scheme of cosmic energies. In one of his tables of energy transformations, there is a "hydrogen" designated 1024 (Ouspensky 172). Tolson is at pains to instruct the reader, and he indicates that the poem may construct its meanings in any direction:

contrived the helmet-like head of the Cape

buffalo with its diablerie

curved outward, downward, and backward--

then, forward, upward, and inward:

               (lns. 4040-43)

     It follows that the 4,201 line length of the poem is based on hydrogen 1024, with the numerals in reverse; doubtless Tolson had a good reason for choosing this place in the diagram of the universe for his poem, but that will have to be discussed elsewhere. Many alchemists and alchemical processes are referred to throughout the poem, for example the Friar Bacon named in line 2016 was an alchemist, and Valentine in line 2368 alludes to the alchemist Basil Valentine, author of The Twelve Keys (1599). Tolson refers to this text in that Hercules only had ten labors and Tolson twice refers to the "twelve fatigues" (lns. 306, 913); this is an example of a "lawful inexactitude" or intentional, objective "mistake" (see Wellbeloved Key Concepts "Legominism" 126). Like many alchemical texts, Harlem Gallery is written in the code used by the alchemists, the cabala. Tolson actually wants the reader to read his poem, so he inserts this key to his poem in it:

The Curator and Doctor Nkomo

sat staring into space,

united like the siphons of a Dosinia--

the oddest hipsters on the new horizon of Harlem,


(by odds)

than that

cabala of a funeral parlor

in Cuernavaca,



"Quo Vadis."

               (lns. 2851-62)

     The word cabala appears in each of Tolson's long poems, so that anyone aware of the nature of this alchemical code could decipher his poems. This cabala is not to be confused with the Jewish Kabbalah; it is more properly known as the phonetic cabala.2 Cabala was given a wider provenance by one of the most famous of modern esoteric texts, Fulcanelli's Le Mystere des Cathedrales (1926), an exposition of the alchemical lore coded into European cathedrals. In the book Fulcanelli gives a detailed description of the alchemical code. The literary groups organized by A.R. Orage in the United States made great use of the alchemical cabala code in their writings. Their belief seems to have been that while they were attempting to recruit sufficient new members to raise the "food" vibrations of the planet in order to save it, they needed to protect themselves from interference: the coded texts served to keep out those too asleep to realize the existence of the code. Anyone who could discover the code was awake enough to enter the school and be initiated into the alchemical transformations. The verse that follows is particularly interesting in the light of what I have just said. Cabala is related to the Latin word caballus for horse, and Fulcanelli discusses this etymology in Le Mystere des Cathedrales. Though alchemy is referred to by many names, its most prevalent label is the great art, and the true nature of alchemy is a religious conception of the regeneration of the soul, which Tolson refers to below as "immortality":


The school of the artist


the circle of wild horses,

heads centered,

as they present to the wolves

a battery of heels,

in the arctic barrens where

no magic grass of Blaucus

gives immortality.

               (lns. 2072-80)

     Here are some rules about how Tolson's version of the phonetic cabala operates:

          (1) Capital letters often signal that notarikon3 is to be employed (as in Cross Top Sins Sky; italicized letters give Ouspensky [lns. 3556-66 from "Chi"]).

          (2) The literal meaning of lines is often minimal, since the lines are designed more to carry the ciphers than to support a discourse;

          (3) Words are sounded out phonetically.

          (4) The sounds can appear in any order and often skip over lines and jump from the bottom to the top of a stanza.

     The Oragean modernists were mainly restricted to coding names into their texts. The same names are repeated many times and in many ways. Clearly, they assumed that this technique was the best way to hide their esoteric content in plain sight. Besides the names that were important to them, the Oragean modernists often inserted the concepts of the Gurdjieff Work, though they recognized that these were often common words and did not need to be coded, depending instead on the double meaning of the words: thus they used the word work since it was an esoteric word but was in common use. A good example of a word from The Work that is in plain sight in Harlem Gallery is remember, by which Tolson points to the concept of self-remembering in The Work. The word remember does not look technical, so it does not attract attention. Tolson hopes to emphasize the word, and thus not only does it appear many times but very often as the only word in a line of poetry: lns. 1288, 2187, 2193, 2197, 2202, etc., and it is emphasized by other positional means. What Gurdjieff taught was not remembering but "self-remembering" (see Wellbeloved Key Concepts 187), and Tolson has pointed more specifically to this activity with line 3215, "remember to remember."

     In this essay I will restrict myself to a discussion of the names that appear in the poem, since the primary way that Tolson encoded information was through names. But to give an example from another Oragean, I will begin with a very unique example. Djuna Barnes's novel Nightwood is considered enigmatic. The odd thing about the critical handling of Barnes is that despite the fact that she had serial affairs with the personalities involved in one of Gurdjieff's Paris groups, no hint of esotericism clings to her in the scholarly treatments of her work. The protagonist of Nightwood is Dr. Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante-O'Connor, a name that has stumped Barnes's critics.4 The name does nothing if it does not call attention to itself, which is the point of this instance of overwriting—the chief flaw of which the novel is accused. The overwriting is entirely functional from the esoteric point of view: O'Connor's name is meant to give the reader access to the coded level of the text. If the word doctor is used instead of "Dr." the name can be read by cabala, and it says "don't you know at night all cats are gray." The Oragean modernists often used common phrases to give a clue to what they were doing. Similarly, in Harlem Gallery Tolson uses the name Julio Sigafoos (ln. 711) as his simplest key—and a much simpler key it is than Barnes's, since it says only jigaboo. Tolson is right on the cusp of intelligibility here, since he leaves out the letter b and substitutes an f--comparable to Barnes, who derives cat from the ct in doctor. In the final analysis it seems that people do not read in the way the Oragean modernists needed them to read, for despite all the interest that has been shown in their texts the hidden level remains undisclosed in all of them. The presentation of the most deeply coded names in Harlem Gallery is quite another matter than the keys: cabala works by what Tolson called "sight, sound, and sense" (Flasch 48). This convention is referred to ironically in the lines quoted below, where Tolson underlines the reader's inability to read his poem: "a blind and deaf-mute Sky" (ln. 3095). The meanings accrete over the course of the close readings of the text. There are more than 4,000 lines in the poem, and the name Djuna Barnes is presented forty-nine times. One of the rules of the Oragean modernist cabala was that doubling indicates the use of the code. In the presentation of Djuna Barnes below, not only is there the doubling of bar ("bars of a barracoon" [ln. 3093]) and the long O sound ("barracoon" and "moon"), there is also the word "cipher" (tripled) to further aid the reader in recognizing that the passage contains a coded name:


Beneath the sun

as he clutched the bars of a barracoon,

beneath the moon

of a blind and deaf-mute Sky,

my forebears heard a Cameroon

chief, in the language of the King James Bible, cry,

"O Absalom, my son, my son!"

Solons of Jim Crow,

sages as far as the beard,

cipher and cipher and cipher--

and ask, "What is a Negro?"

               (lns. 3092-3102)

     What follows in this essay is an annotated list of the names that Tolson has coded into the text along with the meanings of the names presented in the text.

     1. Gurdjieff. The most important name in the text is Gurdjieff's since everything is traced back to him. Gurdjieff had a name that many students found difficult to pronounce, so many students called him "Mr. G." or just "G"– thus Tolson plays games with the letter G and the sound of the letter besides playing games with the word Gurdjieff itself:

"Mr. Guy Delaporte III cried out before the Regents," (ln 658) [The French pronunciation of Guy is close to the English sound of G].
"A giraffine fellow whose yellow skin" (ln. 752) [The closest English words to Gurdjieff as chosen by the Oragean modernists were giraffe and kerchief.] Gurdjieff was said to have a yellow complexion, and yellow is used in many texts to identify characters as Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff wrote a book titled Beelzebub's Tales, thus Harlem Gallery commences with an allusion to the man's complexion and his book, though without the use of cabala: "The Lord of the House of Flies, / jaundice-eyed, synapses purled," (lns. 5-6).
"Behold a Gordian knot without /the beau geste of an Alexander's sword!" (lns. 3907-08 [Gord and geste must be combined to produce Gurdjieff. The Gordian knot was a puzzle that Alexander the Great solved by cutting a knot with a sword. The solution to Tolson's conundrum is a word, a play on sword.]

     One useful way to think about Harlem Gallery in order to read it is that Tolson uses the poem to allegorize or analogize passages of Ouspensky's book, In Search of the Miraculous, much as the Tarot cards were enacted by the initiatory mystery of his other long poem, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous is the "objective" content of Tolson's Harlem Gallery, and if he is to be faulted for any part of this eccentric undertaking it should be his imaginative failure to go beyond his complete dependency on Ouspensky.5 Gurdjieff changed his method of teaching a number of times, but Tolson is, so to speak, frozen at one stage of the development of the Gurdjieff Work by his allegiance to Search and to the attitudes and methods of the Orageans. The oddest thing about Tolson was that he was an Oragean but rather than situating his poem in The Oragean Version—C. Daly King's published account of Orage's teachings,6—he depended on Ouspensky—which is a directly Gurdjieffian exposition. The differences between the different schools is too complex to go into here. Paul Taylor parses their differences with respect to one aspect of the entire esoteric project that has the most bearing on trying to read Harlem Gallery—the problem of esoteric reading itself, Where is the key to the text?:

What he wanted yet from Gurdjieff, and felt he never got, was key to Gurdjieff's knowledge—that is, its source and deepest core substance. He believed fully in the efficacy of Gurdjieff's psychological methods. He was in awe of the book, and supposed that it contained timeless secrets of life in coded form. All he needed was the key. Even when he felt that key had been withheld from him, however, he remained loyal to his task to see the text finished in good English form. Orage's loyalty to his stewardship never wavered. Orage believed to the end that the book was a door to perception of an esoteric lore, or "secret of life," and that Gurdjieff had hidden its key. Toomer had also thought Gurdjieff was withholding something crucial, wittingly or no. Where Orage thought the key was the book, Toomer thought it was the teaching. One might reply to these suppositions by arguing that the teaching is the book, but this would beg the question. Gurdjieff himself was the book, and now the book is Gurdjieff. (Brothers 250)

     Tolson uses the word key in Harlem Gallery fifteen times.

     P.D. Ouspensky's staid systemizing is more important to the design and to the content of Harlem Gallery than is the charismatic personality of Gurdjieff the teacher or his science fiction tome Beelzebub's Tales (though there are many allusions to that text). This influence is due to the fact that Gurdjieff's system was disseminated through the clear and well-organized accounts written by Ouspensky, without which, it is no exaggeration to say, there would be no psychologist-philosopher commanding the unique position held by Gurdjieff. Ouspensky is the gateway to Gurdjieff, and King's The Oragean Version remains one of the most obscure texts in the Gurdjieffian canon.7 Most of Gurdjieff's books were written as experiments in "objective" literature, and, though they have nothing in common with experimental literature as performed by avant-garde writers, the majority of the writing is intentionally obscure, and it is only through the writings of Ouspensky that the many complications of his cosmology are accessible to interested students. Though several others (Colin Wilson, Kenneth Walker, Maurice Nicoll, Margret Anderson, C. S. Nott, J. G. Bennett, Irmis B. Popoff, and most recently Michael Waldberg, James Webb, James T. Tart, and Sophia Wellbeloved to name the major contributors to this literature) have presented their versions of Gurdjieff's system or parts of it, no one has approached Ouspensky's ability to present the material in as clear, precise, and authoritative a manner. Indeed, some of the writers who have published books on Gurdjieff have simply paraphrased Ouspensky. Because Ouspensky popularized the Gurdjieff system of philosophy and psychology and rather allowed it to float free of its sources in Central Asian literature and thought, Tolson was able to effectively use In Search of the Miraculous as a key to his Harlem Gallery without worrying that the astute reader would lose his way: once an interest in esoterism has begun, the Gurdjieff material is unavoidable. Presumably Tolson assumed that it might be difficult going, but with the aid of Ouspensky's books, the poem, Harlem Gallery, could ultimately be understood.

     2. Ouspensky. The occurrences of P.D. Ouspensky's name in Harlem Gallery are many. Moreover, Ouspensky's name is present as well in Tolson's other long poem, the Libretto. The name appears in earlier poems as well. The last three lines of "Nu" provide the clearest appearance of Ouspensky's name, as Tolson gave the name twice:

giggles were wiggles
of a coral fish's spinal fin
when it poisons and kills the alien next of kin.
The italicized syllables sound phonetic approximations of Ouspensky's name: the italicized syllables must be read downward to give
es pin ki
es fin ki
There is a comic component to these phonetic cabala wordgames in the subtext that Tolson acknowledges on the surface of the poem. To practitioners of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism, not the alchemical phonetic cabala) the cryptic Torah is evidence of The Almighty's sense of humor, and aware of this tradition Tolson treats the codes in Harlem Gallery with humor. Tolson clearly enjoyed flaunting his ciphers:
Sometimes a work of art is bitter crystalline alkaloid
to be doled out
at intervals, between the laugh and flout
of an Admirable Doctor; but, if taken too much
at a time, it delivers the cocainizing punch
of a Jack Dempsey nonesuch.


Harlem Gallery is replete with such phrases as "cryptic words," "cabala," "sly," "cipher," "occult identity," "mask," and "secret studies." Once the reader learns how to take Tolson literally, a entirely new poem opens out: lines that seem pretentious take on new twists, as for example this passage at the conclusion of "Xi":
like ski pants at the ankle

               (lns. 1967-69)

that conceals one of the most comic and surprising presentations of Ouspensky's name. The ironic pun on "tight" applies to Hideho Heights's intoxication (drunk like ski pants), as does the drunken, slurred sound of the assonance and alliteration, all of which contrasts with the seriousness of the coded delivery of "Ouspensky." Other plays on Ouspensky's name are nearly as surprising, but none is as artfully integrated into the poetry. At several points in the poem, we are challenged by Ouspensky's complete nom de plume: P. D. Ouspensky. In "Chi" the P.D. of Ouspensky's initials are provided by the first two letters of "Poet Defender." (This usage is also paralleled by Ph.D. in "Beta," in "of Daumier and Gropper and Picasso" in "Zeta," Dolph Peeler in "Phi," and Ph. D. in "Omega.") Ouspensky's name occurs a great many times; some of its appearances are highly accomplished combinations of extraordinary wordplay and unusual associations:
dust panhandle ti ("Alpha")

Brasses doomsday ("Gamma")

tissues pink eyes ("Delta")

Art's yen ivory ("Epsilon")

Postscript Bourgeoisie gin ("Zeta")

Ox Aquinas sky ("Eta")

giggles spinal kill ("Nu")

or pants ski ("Xi")

Osiris pen incestuously [Nkomo] ("Omicron")

aloes paints frankincense ("Pi")

auld Gilpin syne ("Rho")

O spindle Lachesis ("Sigma")

oysters cinders Tyche ("Tau")

Poet Defender Grouse underpin integrity; Tops Sins Sky ("Chi")

ox origin ti and Xenos cabin motleys ("Psi")

Ph. D. sucks spaced eked; Our paintings odyssey ("Omega")

husks crib psyche; Ph. D. pegged spin identity; tongues tanged bees ("Beta")

     3. A.R. Orage. A.R. Orage was for a time the most important person in the Gurdjieff hierarchy in the United States. Because of his stature in the world of letters, Orage attracted a great number of important intellectuals and writers to the Gurdjieff groups in New York and Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. A.R. Orage's name makes fewer sharp appearances in Harlem Gallery than Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. However, his name is suggested by many combinations of sounds; so while Orage is not always sounded out distinctly as it is in "Broken Orange Pekoe" in "Psi," its numerous incomplete renderings indicate that Tolson more often wrote his verses by using the phonetic components of Orage's name rather than by trying to construct puns or anagrams.9 A.R. Orage appears in the following places:

scimitar Murat ("Alpha")

tartar nor chard; Art ex-professor pegged; Art nor perches ("Beta")

artist age ("Delta")

Art work art; Art her lover ("Delta")

artist or a god die ("Eta")

Oratory Fathers ("Upsilon")

Albert Ryder Iscariot ("Phi")

Art Dorado ("Psi")

Art arctic rigidity ("Omega")

     4. Wallace Thurman. It was likely to have been Wallace Thurman who introduced Melvin Tolson to the Gurdjieff movement in Harlem. Tolson met Thurman while writing his Master's thesis, The Harlem Group of Negro Writers.

well as through (thumb) man ( also: mandarin, half-man) ("Zeta")

(rutting)thrust (hu)man ("Theta")

     Every member of the Harlem Gurdjieff group is listed in the poem:

5. Rudolph Fisher: brood alt(itudes) fish here ("Iota")

6. Zora Neal Hurston: portra)its,(Blackam)oor/lean,snail,naif/Har(lem),verve,divers ity, burnt/tone,bone; Zolas new (o)l(d) history ("Iota")

7. Aaron Douglas: orien(tations) d(esign) egg las(t) ("Iota")

8. Bruce Nugent: boots (Ori)gen [reverse] (auth)ent(ic)("Iota")

9. Eric Walrond: retrek [phonetic anagram] walls rutt(ing) ("Iota")

10. Dorothy Peterson: deer red it [reverse] (immaturi)ty/Pissaro bones ("Iota")

11. Harold Jackman: Har(lem) yel(lo)w [reverse] (re)d jack (Watch)man ("Kappa")

12. George Schuyler: Gerry age school Cir(cle)("Omicron"); court schools (script)ure ("Pi")

13. Jean Toomer. O Tempora...O Mores ("Beta"); tomtoms ear hear [twice] ("Iota"); J(ust) (Ree(f) (take)n [twice: see also regulates, belief con] mute [reversed] (Beauf)or(t's) ("Epsilon") [virtually unrecognizable]; Eugene [his actual name] tum(ble) (col)or ("Iota") [also Bourbon, mourner, chessboard, etc.]

14. Gwendolyn Bennett. [Gwendolyn] wind (39) bowl (36) in (45) (all in "Alpha"). [ben runs ostentatiously throughout the entire text—bends (390), bent (538), bends (566), Ben Franklin (758), bends (780), Benin (1073)bench (1156), Big Bend Tunnel, etc.].

Another group of names that appear in the poem are the more prominent names of Gurdjieff's followers:
15. Mable Dodge Luhan: marble Indigo Lu(rid) ha(bitues) (i)n(to) ("Mu"); Uhlan [anagram] ("Eta"); waterlooed hand ("Nu")

16. Olga and Thomas de Hartman : ul(tima) ga(lago) De(laporte) hurt (Watch)man; [probably because of the self-serving egotism and pettiness of their book Our Life With Mr. Gurdjieff] Ha-Ha, Haw-Haw, Haw-Haw's, Hush-Hush, hula-hula

17. Zona Gale: zinnia Galeoto ("Delta"); "(Bi)zan (ware/indicates) a gale" ("Epsilon")

Harlem Gallery is also a gallery of important religious and esoteric figures:

18. Abraham Abulafia [13th century Spanish Kabbalist, inventor of letter permutation and author of Splitting of Names, Book of Permutations, etc.] Abraham (F) ab(ian) ill(umin)a(ting) fi(des) [also: a bow(els) (gir)affi(ne) a ("Eta")

19. Issac Luria [The "Ari" or "Lion" was the most important Kabbalist and Jewish mystic of the later period of the development of Kabbalah.] Ari: (Kalah)ari; Friar [anagram]; artist [anagram]; diapered, etc. [see "Omicron": "Ari" is sounded out through the length of the entire poem.]

20. Mahatma Ghandi: (The) Hamfat Man [anagram] (salam)and(er) (of) G(err)y [also: "gallows tree demands"] ("Omicron")

21. Fulcanelli [The pen name of the most important modern alchemist.] Pull man effigy [anagram] ("Beta"); full can (rev)eille ("Alpha"); fluky, flues, flux [anagrams for "ful"] (high-)C an(swer) (Ph)ilae ("Delta") [Most of "Delta" paraphrases Fulcanelli's Le Mystere des Cathedrales]

22. Edward Kelley [English alchemist]: (h)e de(cided) Haw-Haw rub KKK, Yellah, Belle, alley ("Theta")

23. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky [often called HPB by her followers]: "Hedley's/Puffing Billy" ("Sigma") [Notarikon].

     24. The Curator. The names presented above occur many times in Harlem Gallery besides the examples shown. The names of many other figures from the annals of religion and occultism also may be found in the poem. The examples discussed in this study are intended as a demonstration of Tolson's method of constructing the hidden level of his poems. Once it has become apparent to the reader that this hidden level exists, it also becomes inescapably evident that on the literal level the poem says little that requires treatment in poetry. In the passage quoted previously from "Beta," The Curator makes a great contention over obvious circumstances: in the first stanza he proclaims that death is inevitable, in the second stanza he delivers an extravagant declamation that narrates the anti-climactic details leading to his lack of an academic position. The triviality of these passages is partly due to Tolson's mockery of the solemnity of epic language, and as such is the irony descending from the French Symbolists and Eliot that characterizes the poetry of High Modernism.

     There is, however, an additional mechanism in operation, the concatenation of repeated elements that eventually brings about a moment in which the rhetoric collapses beneath the reader. Tolson anticipated that eventually it would become apparent to the reader that the "nonsense" of the verses is the Kabbalistic medium in which the hidden level is suspended. Tolson reiterates over and over that this anticipated revelation is to be sought from the act of reading his poem. One instance of his anticipation is in these lines from "Upsilon":

Whatever the effect of this altitude,

it was hidden behind the Curator's mask—

like a tailor bird's nest

behind stitched-together leaves.

Tolson did not intend that, in the final analysis, the reader would take The Curator's speeches seriously, but at the same time it is necessary to take the esoteric comedy of them literally. Again, Tolson has left specific instructions on how this is to be accomplished—in "Omicron he delivers this transparent caveat":
Give the rind to the pedant

and the bone to the Hamfat Man

The lines seem to allude to the comedian Pigmeat Markham but as I have stated above the reading through the phonetic cabala is Mahatma, meaning great soul or enlightened one. It is the "comedian" not the pedant who is able to work out the meaning of the double talk in the verses, for comedians are skilled in double entendre.

     Harlem Gallery contains many characters, all of whom possess unusual names. There is a great deal to be learned from these names. The Curator's name is part of the title of the poem: "Book I, The Curator." It is stated many times in the poem that The Curator wears a mask. In actuality, he wears many masks. One of those masks is his identification with The Consul in Malcolm Lowry's novel, Under the Volcano. Another is that of Horace Zagreus, a character in Wyndham Lewis's novel The Apes of God. In neither of those former incarnations was The Curator a curator; he was, respectively, an art critic and a consul who dabbled in occultism. Why is he now a curator? True, a gallery does need a curator, but a gallery needs many other administrators as well. Tolson must have had a reason for choosing to call his narrator The Curator. In Mister Starks' poem "The Curator," the line "a jacobin of horny, reversed epidermal outgrowths" (ln. 2667) tells us to reverse the name. In reverse, curator produces "rota." Rota is Latin for wheel, and along with Tarot and Thora is one of the names for the pack of cards. The tenth card is The Wheel of Fortune—Rota—and in Kabbalah the number 10 is yod, the hand of God. Curator contains the words "cur" (the dog is especially important in the Gurdjieff Work ) "rat," and "actor." There are countless dogs in Harlem Gallery. A "cur" is also a coward. Moreover, "dog" backwards is "god." The Curator "acts" like a "coward," as that is his "mask." He is the "Hamletian rat" who sees John Laugart killed ("Zeta"). Tolson did well by calling his narrator The Curator, given the number of associations generated by this short name.

     25. Doctor Obi Nkomo. Doctor Obi Nkomo has a name from the Bantu group of languages from central and South Africa. He is not a psychologically bifurcated "Negro." He is a foil for the elitist Curator, who suffers from racial double consciousness. His name can also be read through the phonetic cabala and says Do Be Common. Do Be Common is a parody of Jesse B. Semple, Langston Hughe's plainspoken Negro persona, so a very complicated comment is being made about Hughes.12 The simplicity advocated by the name Do Be Common belies the complexity of the identity of Dr. Nkomo—for if he is in disguise,13 he is not at all common. If The Curator is Jean Toomer, it seems to follow that Dr. Nkomo is A.R. Orage in blackface, since Nkomo parallels the role that Orage played in Harlem, though not while in disguise. I have said that The Curator is also Horace Zagreus from Wyndham Lewis's The Apes of God, so it follows that Dr. Nkomo is the analogous character, Pierpoint, whose treatise, The Encyclical, is handed around by the characters but who himself never emerges: according to Lewis's critics, the absent Pierpoint never shows up because that is supposed to solve the technical problem of introducing opinions into the novel, so Tolson's Nkomo is a send-up of Pierpoint, who now can't show up because he is an African. This is a very diffuse and elaborate literary joke. Tolson used Dr. Obi Nkomo's name to indicate his own ideological oppositions to Hughes's embrace of the common denominator of human experience. In addition, Nkomo is also James Weldon Johnson in that Nkomo's opinions express those published by Johnson and ridiculed by Tolson's Gurdjieffian colleague George Schuyler in Black No More. Schuyler's caricature of James Weldon Johnson is absurdly named Dr. Napoleon Wellington Jackson.

     Other names are simple anagrams:

     26. John Laugart is a "laggard."

     27. Mister Starks made "mistakes."

     28. Hideho Heights "hides" his elitist poetry.

     Other names are less obvious.

     29. Crazy Cain is the son of Black Orchid (a Josephine Baker analogue) and Guy Delaporte, 3rd (Gurdjieff). He seems at first to be modeled on Countee Cullen, a target of Wallace Thurman's satire and the "pedant/With a gelded look" of the opening lines of the Libretto. However, the name Cain was also intended to suggest Jean Toomer's novel, Cane.

     30. Dr. Igor Shears. With the late Dr. Igor Shears Tolson takes up gallows humor and contemplates his own approaching demise: "Here I go." However, Shears, a "disciple of Walton" is a Fisher King and will return. Tolson alludes to the reincarnation that is a major theme in the writings of Ouspensky, but not of Gurdjieff, one of the points where they differ markedly. Ouspensky's book The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin is an account of an individual who fails to come to terms with his life and must enter the human frame once again: this theme was picked up by Eliot and it is the subject of "The Waste Land," though this is seldom realized. Eliot's protagonist dies by water over and over again. Eliot was as indebted to Ouspensky for this theme as was Tolson.

     31. Ma'am Shears. And it follows from "Dr. Igor Shears" that Ma'am Shears is "Here I am." When Abraham Abulafia was called by a spirit during a mystical experience, he answered, "Here I am."

     32. Zulu Club Wits. By leaving off the initial letters and giving the remainder a phonetic pronunciation, we see that Zulu Club Wits is a cipher for "I Love You." Some of the names in Harlem Gallery are simple ciphers that were placed in it to provide a key that would admit anyone with a modicum of perception. There are even some keywords derived from conventional language that are similar to the phonetic manipulations of cabala; in "Omicron," Tolson stops short of giving "gerrymander" a clear presentation:

O Time, O Customs,
how can an artist make merry
in the tenderloin's maw,
unless he add a head and a wing and a claw
to the salamander of Gerry?

               (lns. 2008-12)

The above verse suggests that Tolson assumed that if the reader saw that the entire poem was "gerrymandered" the coded level would open to view.

     33. Julio Sigafoos. In "Eta," Julio Sigafoos is nearly recognizable as the racist slur, jigaboo; this is another simple cipher that is a key to the coded level.

     34. Black Orchid. Some of the names in Harlem Gallery are ambiguous. If meanings come from "sight, sound, and sense," here the three modes are in competition. Black Orchid very likely means licorice—largely a matter of sound, though the third syllable must be seen to be pronounced in reverse—chi/ice. As such Black Orchid is merely another key cipher and has no esoteric significance, but it is a very poor example of a key. Tolson may have had a historical context for this association, since licorice juice was used to blacken the stars of the operetta La Créole before Josephine Baker took up the part in 1934.

     35. Freez Skerritt. In the third stanza of "Kappa" the "whiskyfied" Freez Skerritt appears: his name reads as "care free," and Tolson makes the reading easier by associating the man with the means. This is another key name.

     36. Aunt Grindle. Aunt Grindle says "don't grin," but this is the most obscure of Tolson's word games. It acknowledges the traditional duplicity inherent in the social position of Black Americans through its familiar allusion to Paul Lawrence Dubar's poem "We Wear the Mask," from Lyrics of Lowly Life (1986). Given the Gurdjieffians's commitment to "experiment"—the esoteric form of disguise and "lying"—it seems contradictory to find a prohibition against the insincere grin. The matter of who grins and where needs to be studied. When Dr. Nkomo grins with "ambiguity" (ln.1025), The Curator asks that he be excused. Here I will provide some of the places in the poem where grinning appears, so that it can be seen that this is an important theme:

"The Curator grinned/his Solomonic grin," "Upsilon"

"he wears the mask and grins, "Aloha!" "Iota" ln. 1023

"So I pray to God and grin at the whites" "Xi"

"as a fixed-on grin lighted his corrugated face"

     37. Dipsy Muse. This name says "used up." It is a compressed way of saying that time has run out for life on the planet. The entire Gurdjieffian project was based on the proposition that the Earth would be destroyed very soon because of the problems in the supply of vibratory food between man and the next highest level of cosmic life.

     38. Mr. Guy Delaporte III is G.I. Gurdjieff. All of the texts written by the Oragean modernists present Gurdjieff, often in an unflattering manner. Curiously, several novels depict Gurdjieff as rather unpleasant women. In Harlem Gallery he is a powerful figure in Harlem society, a "symbol/ of Churchianity," the purveyor of the values of the Black bourgeoisie, and a prig who seeks to use his status to control the expression of the portrayal of black society in the murals of John Laugart (a figure based on the Oragean modernist painter Aaron Douglas). At the same time Delaporte bears Gurdjieff's distinguishing feature, his ability to tell apart the three (III) centers, moving, thinking, emotions. Delaporte means "of the door," so he also retains his power to admit candidates to the hermetic knowledge.

     39. Hideho Heights. Hideho Heights is a two-faced poet, thus his association with hiding. Of course, his name is an allusion to the Cab Calloway song, "Minnie the Moocher" (1931), in which the chorus is jazz scat singing: "Hi De Hi De Hi De Hi." The name is also an allusion to the fact that Harlem Gallery hides Tolson's spiritual heights. The poem also hides eights. Two fundamental Gurdjieffian doctrines are the Law of Three and the Law of Seven, the latter of which, being based on the octave, is actually based on the number eight. Tolson played his most elaborate game in Harlem Gallery by combining both these laws in one line of poetry, a device which appears at least fifteen times in the more that 4,000 lines of the poem:

the seventy-seven steps of the Seventh/Heaven ("Lambda"; ln. 1370—the line number also has a 3 and a 7)

across the dialectic Alps from Do to Do ("Gamma") [The dialectic is made of three parts-thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Do to do is the octave of eight notes.]

seven sins dialectical ("Chi" ln. 3557)

tone colors of the triple-octave xylophone ("Iota")

with a third degree and a second wind and a seventh turn ("Psi")

like the flatted third and seventh notes ("Omega")

who found the .38 hidden in ("Sigma" ln. 2429 –the process of hiding 3 and 8 is revealed in this line)

the seven panels of man's tridimensionality ("Eta")

then (wried by the seventh facial nerve) confuse ("Zeta")

to protect the seven faculties of the brain ("Psi") [The Gurdjieffian brain consists of three centers, emotion, intellect, instinct.]

three score years and ten ("Eta")

tentacle of the octopus of imperialism ("Xi")

like a pitcher with three runners on the bases; ("Psi")

in the blackjack game of his free enterprise, ("Xi") [blackjack is 21 or 3 X 7.]

catching a twenty-four- ("Upsilon") [twenty-four is 3 X 8.]

     40. Snakehips Briskie. Harlem Gallery's Snakehips Briskie was a Harlem nightclub dancer based on Earl "Snakehips" Tucker. The altered name came about because the name that Tolson substituted says "risky age"—a reference to the Gurdjieffian doctrine that the world of man was in danger of complete destruction. Man would be set aside and another form of life would be allowed to evolve.

     41. Rufino Laughlin. Rufino Laughlin is an expression of the salient doctrine of alchemy. The original source is the Emerald Tablet, which says: (7a) "You separate the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross, gently with great industry" (Fulcanelli). The separation means the extraction of the soul from the body. There is a detailed discussion of alchemy in Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous, the essence of which is "separate the fine from the coarse" (180). Tolson has compressed this into Rufino—rough/fine. This is all that the name needs to be usefully esoteric; "Laughlin" adds an element of ambiguity to the name. It is likely that Tolson is alluding to The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkruetz, an alchemical text that like Harlem Gallery contains a many occasions of laughter. In Search Ouspensky discusses this theme as a matter of "the reception of finer influences" (305; my emphasis), where he points out that man must evolve to continue to be of use to nature.

     42. Wafer Waite. Novelist and N.A.A.C.P. executive Walter White was a friend of Tolson's. "Wafer Waite" is the presentation of his name in the poem. This is another ambiguous name that is likely to say, "wait for [them]." It is complicated by the fact that Arthur Edward Waite was a major occultist and the author of books on the Tarot that Tolson used a great deal. The standard modern Tarot deck is the Rider-Waite deck, which Waite published. The name alludes the program of the N.A.A.C.P. which advocated that Black Americans should not have to wait for their civil rights to be recognized. In the poem Tolson also refers to "wafer" in the context of the Eucharist.

     43. Frog Legs Lux. Frog Legs Lux, a jazz bandleader, has a Latin name meaning "away from the law of light." The name is taken from Proverbs 6:23 "For the commandment [is] a lamp; and the law [is] light; and reproofs of instruction [are] the way of life." (KJV). Tolson is alluding to another important aspect of esotericism, The Ray of Creation, or what in Kabbala is called "The Line of Light." This is the image of the entire cosmos from the most material manifestations to the most spiritual. (See Jacob Needleman, "Gurdjieff and His School.")

     44. Vincent Aveline. Vincent Aveline may be read as Latin to say "hail/farewell to the conquering race." Used ironically for its ambiguous meanings, either hello or goodbye, Aloha is used in the same way as "ave" in the opening lines of "Iota." This is an allusion to the theme of man's evolution.

     45. Joshua Nitze, nice show. [The name alludes to the destruction of the "Jericho" of civilization and to Nietzschean transcendence through the creation of the superman, the Oragean dualities. Orage introduced Nietzsche to England, and the Orageans were Nietzscheans.]

     46. Big Mama. Big Mama says I am. This was another important component of the Gurdjieff Work. Gurdjieff wrote three series of books. The third series was called: THIRD SERIES: Four books under the common title of "Life Is Real Only Then, When I Am." Gurdjieff's description—from the title page—is as follows: "To assist the arising, in the mentation and in the feelings of the reader, of a veritable, nonfantastic representation not of that illusory world which he now perceives, but of the world existing in reality." In the fifth talk in Life, Gurdjieff gives the instructions for the "I Am" exercise: "The first exercise consists of intentionally practicing "self-deception"—Gurdjieff explains that repeating aloud "I am", and accompanying this utterance by focusing on a real or imagined feeling of resonance within oneself, serves as a method of depositing an imagined property into a person's subconscious or into his 'passive state' (as he calls it). Once something gets deposited into this passive state, Gurdjieff explains, it may help bring into fruition within the person whatever the person imagines during this practice. For example, Gurdjieff claims that with this exercise one can cure 'any type of disharmony' such as a headache" ("Fifth Talk"). Note that "The Ms. Harlem Vignettes, / was done up in a mamba's skin" (lns. 2443-44), where again mamba's skin presents "I am."

     47. Lionel Matheus says "lying atheist" (a comment on Marxism).

     48. Shadrach Martial Kilroy says "Marx should kill race."

     49. Hedda Starks. Hedda Starks is the wife of Mister Starks, whose name is "mistake." If the wife's name is read consistently with the husband's, it means "eat a steak."

     49. Miss Ester Bostic. Miss Ester Bostic "misses the roster." In other words she does not see the wisdom of joining the esoteric circle and she "dies like a dog."

     50. Mr. Abelard Littlejohn. Mr. Abelard Littlejohn states that "only art is able." This is an important esoteric tenet—that the alchemical transformation is the route to immortatlity.

     51. Bishop Euphorbus Harmsworth. Bishop Euphorbus Harmsworth is the warning that one should "Be sharp, for you harm Earth."

     52. Reverend Eli declares that "lies never end."

     53. "Bishop" Gladstone Coffin. "Bishop" Gladstone Coffin differs from the previous bishop by having his title in quotation marks. The name is a key that gives a common phrase like the one that Djuna Barnes's doctor disclosed in Nightwood, "at night all cats are gray." Tolson's bishop says "last one in," as in last one in is a rotten egg. "Bishop" urges the reader to be sharp—to be on the lookout for a hidden meaning.

     One of the embedded texts within Harlem Gallery is "Harlem Vignettes," a book of imagist poems written by Mister Starks. The poems are titled with the names of other characters and purport to reveal each character's secrets: the volume is comparable to The Spoon River Anthology except that the subjects of the poems are alive: the volume emerges when Starks commits suicide. The suicide allows The Curator access to the poems, and he reads them. Harlem Gallery is a fusion of esoteric systems, so that some of the names in the poem can be read through alchemy (the phonetic cabala), The Jewish mystical Kabbablah, and the Gurdjieff Work, and of course these systems overlap as they describe the same cosmos. With "Harlem Vignettes" alchemy and cabala give way to Kabbalah. From the esoteric point of view the names in Starks's volume constitute a side octave that connects with the three main octaves of Harlem Gallery at "Upsilon," an interval and the note Fa, as shown in the chart below.

     Harlem Gallery consists of 24 cantos, one for each letter of the Greek alphabet, and has a total of 4201 lines. It is arranged in three octaves (see Ouspensky, Search 123-140), but the chart below only shows the point at which "Harlem Vignettes" emerges at the "interval" Fa:

Alpha -- 48
Beta -- 128
Gamma -- 76
Delta -- 132
Epsilon -- 78
Zeta -- 161
Eta -- 307
Theta -- 82

Iota --180
Kappa -- 106
Lambda -- 79
Mu -- 162
Nu -- 55
Xi -- 382
Omicron -- 130
Pi -- 138

Rho -- 81
Sigma -- 118
Tau -- 26
Upsilon -- 564 [Fa] [10 poems of HV]
Phi -- 339
Chi -- 200
Psi -- 379
Omega -- 250

TOTAL -- 4201 lines

     The ten poems in "Harlem Vignettes" represent the Sefiroth (Sephirot), the ten energy essences that are said to be in constant interplay and underlie all of the universe.

This is the Great Octave or the Tree of Life. The ten personalities in Mister Starks's poem represent entirely new values on the level of the Kabbalah more than they do in their outer manifestations. It would be useful at this point to show the Sefiroth with the names of the characters "Harlem Vignettes" substituted for the traditional identifiers, but technical limitations prevent this. For example, the haughty, social climbing Mrs. Guy Delaporte III is revealed as the ability to "examine the soul" because her poem is the eighth poem and so corresponds to Binah on the Sefiroth.

     In "Beta," which bears many other references to the Sephiroth (e.g., "Uppermost" [ln. 115], The Ladder—" upper rungs" [ln. 163]), The Curator says:

the upper rungs
of my ladder are zeros
which is an allusion to the Zero of Ayin at the top of The Ladder of manifestation; in the illustration of the Kabbalistic cosmos shown previously, this region is referred to as "Ayin," and "Absolute Nothing." Tolson is scarcely attempting to maintain his veil of secrecy; only the relative obscurity of Kabbalistic lore protects his esoterism. Another clear reference to the Kabbalah occurs in "Omicron," where The Curator muses:
An artist makes what he can;
very work of art asserts,
"I am that I am."
So leave the rind to the pedant
and the bone to the Hamfat Man.

     The flesh of Harlem Gallery is the flesh of Kabbalah: in order to come to terms with the poem, the reader must look in the Kabbalah for understanding.


1. See "Are We Awake," A.R. Orage ( Aidan Maconachy states that

The theory of the human machine and its functions is quite complex. It takes the view that the everyday state of "wakefulness" is a mechanical state, governed by false personality with its ever-shifting "I's". Ideas, feelings, impulses etc act through us in an automatic fashion, rather than being consciously initiated. Gurdjieff believed that we flatter ourselves in believing we possess any type of fixed or unified "I". He considered such inner unity only possible in a higher state unattainable by most.

In order to begin the challenging task of "awakening", Fourth Way teaching recommends a technique of self-observation. This is a dispassionate form of observation capable of maintaining vigil irrespective of how hectic and demanding our life may happen to become. Gurdjieff referred to this and other techniques as "the work" and often emphasized how difficult it is to self-observe correctly over a sustained period of time, without defaulting back into the state of identification. As a way of increasing the force of self-observation so-called "movements" or sacred dances are sometimes used." ("Gurdjieff and the 'Terror of the Situation'", at

2. See Gleb Butuzov, "Some Traits of Hermetic Language." The Alchemy Web Site.

3. Notarikon is a method of deriving a word by using each of its initial or final letters to stand for another word, forming a sentence or idea out of the words. Notarikon is one of the three ancient methods, the other two being gematria and temurah, used by the Kabbalists to rearrange words and sentences in the Bible to derive the esoteric substratum and deeper spiritual meaning of the words. Notarikon was also used in the protoscience alchemy. (Notarikon, at

4. In a recent review Miranda Seymour states that "The character of Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O'Connor owed everything to the extraordinary raconteur and abortionist Daniel A. Mahoney. In his biography, Djuna, Phillip Herring has much to say about her friendship with Mahoney and the care with which she recorded his pronouncements in her notebooks. In Nightwood, the funny, horrifying monologues of Dr. O'Connor seem at first no more than a device to unify the wandering narrative. A closer reading shows that O'Connor uses his fantastic imagination to keep reality at bay. His outpourings are a lifeline he throws to his desperate friends. When, finally, he goes mad, he does so recognizing that he has failed to save them from themselves. "I've not only lived my life for nothing, but I've told it for nothing," he whispers for his own grim epitaph."

5. More research needs to be addressed to this topic. T.S. Eliot's "The Four Quartets" also depends heavily on Ouspensky (see Taylor, Brothers 118), and much could be learned from a comparative study. It must be noted that in this respect Tolson is simply following the traditional methods of Sufi literature, one source of Gurdjieff's teachings. For example, the Mathnawi and Diwan, two great poems by the Sufi master poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, are practically direct translations of Quranic verses into Persian poetry. See Seyyed Hossein Nasr, "Rumi and the Sufi Tradition," in Chelkowski (ed.), The Scholar and the Saint, p. 183.

6. In The Oragean Version, C. Daly King surmised that the problem that Gurdjieff had with Orage's teachings was that the "Oragean Version" was not emotional enough and was not based on "incredulity" and faith. King wrote that Gurdjieff did not state it as clearly and specifically as this, but was quick to add that nothing Gurdjieff said was specific or clear. (George Gurdjieff, at

7. The Oragean Version, King, C. Daly. Privately printed in a limited edition of 100 copies. New York: 1951, 289 p., index. Convinced that Orage's presentation was an undistorted version of an ancient teaching that would be irretrievably lost after Orage's death, King presents a rigorous and detailed formulation of material he gathered over several years of close study with Orage. Pages 257 to 269 contain King's rendering of 118 aphorisms by Orage.

8. Tolson's A Gallery of Harlem Portraits is supposed to be a Marxist poem. It reminds the reader of Spoon River Anthology and some of Sandburg's work. These spare models do not allow for the type of complex effects that high modernist poetry makes possible. Tolson has hidden his esoteric content in the table of contents. Like Edgar Lee Masters's poem, Tolson has employed very odd names in his poem: in Tolson's poem the odd names are the coded content of the poem, and the entire table of contents can be read as such to good effect. "Aunt Tommiezene" tells us that Tolson ain't Commie. "Polly Trotter" tells the reader that the Marxist surface is all rot. Gurdjieff called the Fourth Way the way of the sly man, thus "Sylvia Wiggins" points to sly GIG. And there is a record of the most significant event in the movement, the split between the Orageans and the Gurdjieffians: "Margaret Levy," relates that A.R. leaves G.

9. The predominant use of phonetic component of names rather than entire names applies to the Libretto as well. See lines 310-450.

10. Tolson was only in New York during the 1931-32 academic year while he took courses at Columbia University. Tolson put off the completion of his thesis for many years. He often took trips saying that he had to do more research, but a reading of the actual thesis makes this a questionable assertion, as the thesis was mainly composed of published reviews and articles.

11. Gurdjieff warned his pupils that if they did not perfect themselves they would "die like dogs." See "A note: on the dog Gurdjieff buried" (

12. Langston Hughes rejected the Gurdjieff Work because he was a race man, and the Work declared race a form of sleep. Hughes is treated as a comic figure in some of the novels of the Harlem Renaissance Gurdjieffians, because he was unaware of the esoteric activities of the other Harlem writers, so that in his biography, The Big Sea (241-42), he went on record with an account of the failure of Toomer's efforts. Tolson's handling of Hughes is another of many topics that needs to be investigated. Aspects of the jazz poet Hideho Heights are reminiscent of Hughes. Like Hideho, Hughes wrote dissonant, experimental modernist poetry (Montage of a Dream Deferred, 1951) in an attempt to escape the stigma of his vernacular and agitprop phases.

13. In "Deception and Role Playing" this comment is made about Gurdjieff's use of disguises: "Beyond concealing the facts of his life, Gurdjieff promulgated misinformation about himself. Gurdjieff, who some critics even considered to be a megalomaniac, was notorious for spinning wild, unbelievable stories and making patently absurd statements. Gurdjieff mixed truth and invention to such a degree that it was impossible to tell what was fact and what was fiction: "He invented and reinvented himself so many times, left so many false trails, and encouraged so many myths and mistakes about exactly who he was that uncovering the truth about his past would take a lifetime." "Deception and Role-Playing" (htt://


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