he passages that follow by David Rosenberg are excepted from his “A Life in a Poem: Memoir of a Rebellious Bible Translator” (published in the UK by Shearsman Books, 2019). Rosenberg lived in Jerusalem during the 1980s, working out of an office in Tel Aviv for the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
In the 1970s, Rosenberg’s early intertextual translations of psalms were retranslated into Hebrew by David Avidan and published in Haaretz and in Achshav. It was Avidan who first described the Detroit-born Rosenberg as a poet “both ancient and contemporary,” a description re-echoed in the English and American world by Donald Hall, Harold Bloom, and Frank Kermode. Before he became the first non-rabbinic editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society, Rosenberg edited a journal from Tel Aviv and Boston, “Forthcoming: Jewish Imaginative Writing”, which brought together new work from leading Israeli and American poets and novelists.
In the 1990s, Rosenberg’s translation of the J portions of the Torah, with commentary by Bloom, became a New York Times bestseller. It was followed by several award-winning books, including “A Poet’s Bible” and “Abraham: The First Historical Biography”. Rooted in the Hebrew of the Bible and the existential sublime of the New York School, Rosenberg currently lives in Miami “in proximity to the Everglades wilderness”. He remains a colleague of Israeli poets, as reflected in these excepts from his latest book.
A Life in a Poem
The Socratic demand “to know thyself” translates, in the biblical sense, “to see thyself.” In my twenties, still on a career path as an academic poet, I focused on the postmodern necessity to see myself sitting at a table (mostly), a creature bent over a page (now a screen). The implied question was not just how this creature got created but what the act of creation might mean, beyond Aristotle’s idea of imitating nature, In one early poem, I compared myself as a writer to a cat diligently covering up its waste material. In another, a poem I reproduce in the chapter, “The Poem of Authorship,” I see myself as a car at night, its headlights flashing across a billboard as if it’s the page I’m writing. Within a few years, as I’d begun to translate the Bible, my focus sharpened: beyond seeing myself translating, I needed to see, imaginatively, the original biblical writer at his or her scene of writing, at a table within the palace archives, in ancient Jerusalem. To do that, and in addition to imagining myself into that ancient Hebrew writer, I became a historical researcher, in libraries here and in Israel–and in the streets of New York and Jerusalem, pitting the vocalization of English against Hebrew, modern and ancient. Did the ancient biblical writer also self-consciously see himself? We tend to think conventionally about biblical writing, that unlike our anxiety-ridden modernism it is not self-conscious; but I discovered how untrue that was, for the intense play of language, in endless ancient puns as well as the ironizing of historical scenes and narration, rendered the ancient writer self-aware. In the end, through many decades of working with the Bible, I can say that the gel seat upon which I now work, inserted into my ‘Adirondack chair poolside, merges in my mind with a velvet pillow cushioning an ancient chair, one modeled in miniature after a throne.
In my time, the Bible was read so heavily that it was an obvious task to somehow lighten it, and to bring the word to its apogee, as in enlighten, or as in the phrase, to see the light. In retrospect, then, the Hebrew Bible gave shape to my life as a North American poet after six youthful collections of avant-garde work dependent on lightening the academic reading of a Rimbaud or Mallarme, when I translated them intertextually. That is, I envisioned them at their writing tables, elated by the lines that seemed to overtake them like the hare passing the tortoise. Eventually they would hone those lines in the slow work of pinning thought and feeling together on the page like a gorgeous specimen, with the writers akin in their creatureliness, like the tortoise focused on the finish line while the hare stayed too long at the bar. The biblical writers were also conscious of their physical presence above the papyrus, as if mediating the cosmic presence of a Creator–no less elated than Rimbaud, and then, like any great writer, falling to the hard work of refocusing, of getting the lines right with a rightness we can only sense by reestablishing the creative context and returning to the historical scene of writing.
After a youth editing and translating Baudelaire and surrealists like Desnos, honoring a droll covenant with the infinitude of consciousness, how was I to feel close to biblical writers? I had to face that they pushed past even further boundaries toward a cosmic theater in which their countrymen are creatures bound into an existential covenant with their Creator. What does He–and life itself–want from them? To grasp the biblical writers working out the complications of the answer, in the form of our journey through human history, required that you sensed them alive and at play, however serious, with their language. Loss of those imaginative writers, for me as a writer, was the deepest loss; it pushed me beyond asking how the Bible was written, and in search of lost ancestors. “Why are you doing it?” my writing colleagues once asked. “Why throw your career as a poet away in order to become a rebellious translator, outside the game?” I didn’t have an articulate answer. if I could put words in the mouth of the past, I might say: “It’s the only way I know how to write the lost Jewish writers at the origin of Western culture into our lives now; they’re the great cosmic players we no longer know how to be. By giving them their lives back, we make it possible to absorb their influence.”
My wife Rhonda, upon reading that last sentence, worries that a reader has difficulty getting their mind around a biblical scene of writing. Whatever perspective a reader has picked up, from childhood onward, it is focused upon the Bible’s text with its highly educated imaginative writers and historians hidden behind a curtain of forgetting. Why bother to reembody them now? Just like a writer today, the ancient Hebraic author sat in a chair, drank his ancient tea or beer, and surveyed his sources in the form of papyrus scrolls spread across his table and shelves. That writer did not start from scratch or catch inspiration like lightning in a bottle. Like writers today (and long before the great rabbis) he or she felt the weight of history, worldly and literary, stretching back for two millenniums of written texts before the Bible, to the cradle of civilization in Sumer and beyond. So I found the most complex authors I could, the lost writers of the Hebrew Bible, and set out to acquire the scholarship I’d need to envision them.
In place of characterizing the ancient writers in Jerusalem, Saul Bellow invoked poets Harold Schimmel and Dennis Silk as contemporary characters, without any obligation to suggest their poetry’s relationship with Jewish history. I came to know them differently, as poets with deeper roots and interests in Jewish history going back to origins in Davidic Jerusalem. I read issues of Silk’s mimeo poetry mag, containing work mostly by him, Schimmel and Arieh Sachs, as if they were time-travelers from a distant past. Harold sent me the first Hebrew book of poems I’d received hot off the presses, in which he sinks his footprints into an aesthetic soil that holds together contemporary and ancient Jerusalem. Dennis also sent Retrievements, his anthology of Jerusalem history, which helps to imagine a future civilization interpreting our own.
Bellow, a supreme prose artist, looks at two poets in Jerusalem who soon became friends of mine. In To Jerusalem and Back, he asks how Schimmel and Silk have learned to push the noise of the world aside, yet fails to to notice the muscles they grew in the pushing, along with Gabriel Levin in his poetry today. Their work reveals the strength of holding on to time, as it moves through and past all the noise of talk and violence. These invisible muscles make poets look slightly odd. You see it especially in photos; you can almost pick out a poet in any group picture.
Harold Schimmel, my Jerusalem poet colleague, writes
ושכל מה שהוא קורא ולומד הוא בסופו של דבר רק לצורך שירתו
which I translate as “a poet is someone who lives his life so that all he reads and learns is shaped by what his poems need.” It’s as if a life is an artifact of a poem, and yet I can’t say life is a poem in the same manner as my chapter titles here suggest. You can speak to (in) a life, you can speak to (in) the universe, because we are, in Schimmel’s sense, their poems–as creatures, creations. …
In the explicit equation of creator and Creator by the poet behind Ecclesiastes, I want his literal name but only so I can see him at the scene of writing, in perhaps the 4th Century BCE, a Jewish reconciler of body and soul: Was he as secular as Whitman or was he as religious as Kierkegaard? If I can imagine the answer, my reading is enriched with parallels that reach from earthbound transcendentalist poet, Thoreau, to Israeli poet Harold Schimmel. I know Harold, I’ve seen him at his desk, I understand the pressures brought to bear–worldly, political, literary, religious–and thus the context in which his poetry struggles for a way forward while sending down biblical roots. And so I tried to translate Ecclesiastes as if I was writing it (though the original writer was a bit of a translator himself). I was in my thirties then, an ephebe of wisdom at best. I was feeling my way through the Bible, in Manhattan’s East Village, having recently returned from a summer in Jerusalem, spoken Hebrew in my ears.
Then I looked up
above my personal horizon
to see the sky
outstretching the sea
lightens a heavy body
a wise man’s eyes
are in his head
while the absent-minded
professor or egoist
disdains to wipe his glasses
while he sinks to the bottom of the sea
but wisdom as quickly evaporates
the moment a body dies
shipwrecked beneath its headstone
the most penetrating realist
hits rock bottom
six feet under…
Israeli poets are at an advantage here, and among those whose mother tongue is English, they come the closest to what a Jewish poet might mean today: Harold Schimmel, Gabriel Levin, Linda Zisquit write in a manner that interacts with Hebrew texts or history, at the same time as they remain
au currant with the postmodern post-Avant. Part-time Israeli residents as I once was and Peter Cole still is, can seem more invested in ancient Hebrew texts than Israeli poets, though with several obvious exceptions that include Michal Govrin, Rivka Miriam, Haviva Pedaya, and Maya Bejerano.
I’ve described how I met the poet Maya Bejerano in earlier pages. Last night I read selections from her book, The Hymns of Job (2008), translated by Tsipi Keller. She is looking back at herself from a negative future, from death; death not simply as a future historical event but as a state of mind. Maya, writing in the language of the three-thousand-year-old biblical poets, has so pressing a weight of meaning against her that there’s no avoiding it, no pushing it off or subverting it. She has to engage it and subdue it, like Jacob wrestling the angel, but unlike Jacob she wins by losing. As if she’s dead, the ultimate loss of meaning, Maya continues to struggle and finish her poem, so that no meaning remains but the fight for survival itself.
“…the knowledge of otherness
is divinity from its primal beginning to its end;
in a black bodysuit in a stain of light he waited for me
in his hand a pistol with a tiny muzzle ravenous as a child’s,
very near me near me in the shade
at dusk he calls my name in hushed tenderness: M M M
and when I say: Yes yes here I am
he’ll shoot once and vanish, I’ll vanish with him
in a black bodysuit
into the void.”
When I met Maya for a date, picking her up at the Tel Aviv main library where she worked, I asked how that profession helped her. “I grew up on a kibbutz,” she said, “but groups made me anxious, I was an impossible loner in a collective endeavor. The library calms me, especially because I’m a solo audience to all these dead voices of the past, lying on their shelf-beds, asking only to be given the meaning of a bed in the house of knowledge, an address, a number.”
Maya went further, turning any strategy into a void, toward the final subversion of the exotic image, “a black bodysuit”–just as she had negated “divinity”. But that Creator has a text, the Hebrew Bible, which can’t be avoided in Maya’s Hebrew, and like Adam in Eden and the poet writing in the name of Isaiah, you can’t hide from the language, its call for a witness. “Here I am”–but Maya is a post-Holocaust poet and when the Jew is called, as to an assembly in the European town square, one is already as if dead; your audience exists only in the future, a putative cosmic Creator who finally answers Job when his questioner turns silent.
It’s just this week that Meyer Levin’s Compulsion has been republished in a new edition and allows me to add an aspect to its authorship, by virtue of friendship with Levin’s son, the poet Gabriel Levin. Gabi’s poems and sinuous prose encode his being a Jew within a larger world. Yet it’s not the great common world that his father or his father’s Chicago colleague Saul Bellow invokes; rather, Gabriel Levin’s is a restoration of a lost region of the imagination, the Levant, within which his Jewishness can thrive as a “worldly” narrator whose Jewish self-knowledge is sublimated into the lost Mediterranean landscapes he investigates for us, all of them standing in for Israel.
“But what about that Dutch park last week, the one in the old Jewish neighborhood that was wiped out, that’s been designated for a Holocaust monument?” asks Rhonda. “The new non-Jewish residents reject it. ‘A park is carefree, for forgetting your cares,’ they say.”
That Dutch monument is to have the forty thousand names of the shipped-to-Auschwitz Dutch Amsterdam community written on it, including Anne Frank; the New York Times compared it to the DC Vietnam park monument. At least those names are no longer lost in time. The black hole that is lost time, however, is challenged by Israeli poet and novelist Michal Govrin, who convened a group in 2014 to investigate how memory of the Holocaust differs in each human mind, each one responsible for transmitting it, and to project such knowledge of uniqueness backward into a retrieving of the life bios of all six million Jewish victims to be engraved on a monument. NYC’s Central Park couldn’t hold it; they’ll have to designate the entire city of Berlin (Vienna?) a park.
Surrounding the Mahane Yehuda shuk, Jerusalem’s largest open-air market, were former warehouses turned into primitive studios and apartments (lately upscaled). Shalva Segal, an artist and recent American immigrant (later to show in NYC as Sarah Segal) rented three raw rooms (toilet in the hall) scrubbed whistle-clean and fixed up with tie-dyed curtains. The “sitting room” took its name seriously; perhaps twenty cheap folding chairs were lined against the walls. This room would fill up once a month for our poetry readings, in which Michal Govrin, Allen Afterman, and I would read our latest “unfinished” work, plus an occasional guest like Dennis Silk, Alan Kaufman or Zelda. The minyan of an audience was made up of baalei tshuva, recent Russian immigrants who’d been deprived of Jewish knowledge, a few Israeli Kabbalah students and their teachers, and some mystically inspired artists of song, including Australian immigrant Ruth Wieder Magan and Israeli avant-gardist Esti Kenan. The Russians and Kabbalah students had barely any English, made up for by rapt attention to every word, chewing on them as if the Passover afikomen. It was a scene of intense honor to poetry; if the Poet’s Cafe friend of Orpheus at the beginning of Cocteau’s eponymous film (1950) was to show his latest issue of Nudisme, where all the pages are blank (he explains to Orpheus that it is more purely absurd than the common journals filled with absurdist works) the audience at Shalva’s would have gasped with delight. The most ironic Second Avenue or Buddhist-entranced audiences I’ve known elsewhere could not approach the kneecaps of that sefirotic high in the Mahane Yehuda. Shalva’s windows leaned over a row of fruit stalls open until midnight, with a low muttering of its patronage backgrounding our readings. I thought back to Jeremy Prynne’s Cambridge rooms in the ’60s, where a handful of sardonic postgraduates tried to pick up on Jeremy’s verbal moves through the rugby shouts outside. Jeremy provided the tea and cookies as Shalva would, but we were all too full of ourselves then, or rather, empty of ourselves, as Jeremy’s cookies were hash-laced.
Since I was also translating some poems by a friend at the time, Yehuda Amichai, the irony of his biblical echoes also reminded me that the original Israeli writers of the Bible had their own ironic echoes, and that many of these were still available if I would read Sumerian, Egyptian, Sanskrit and Canaanite texts (with the help of English translations). I’ve written about this elsewhere, but here I’m focused on that ineffable moment when I could feel as lost in time as distant ancestors, dizzied by the vast stretch between us, and knowing that rescue was possible. Made possible, that is, via the ancient Hebrew text whose original scenes of writing were right there, in Jerusalem. Unlike it, some survivors of the Holocaust have left documents of their experience but these do not generally evoke the richness of their culture’s art and history through the catastrophe’s shadow, a lost time that no new translations from the German of Heine or Freud will rescue, though individual works are revived.
I know just how hard it would have been myself to imagine real Biblical writers, had I not been immersed for a time in spoken Hebrew and contemporary Hebrew literature, which allowed me to hold in mind both a new country that a previous American generation had little access to, and a similarly small country of Israel almost three thousand years ago, having a parallel cadre of Hebrew writers. It may be true that current Israeli writers still fail to imagine their ancient counterparts, considering themselves post-religious or ideologically opposed to a deep reading of what they consider a religious or primitive text. Jerusalem poet Yehuda Amichai once told me it was as if great writers had written the Hebrew Bible while they were still children, and then had stubbornly refused to change a word once they became adults. Most writers in Western languages think that way; it’s more natural that they read the Bible literally, humorously, politically–as if the original Biblical author J was not herself ironic in Genesis when she created her history of the ziggurat/tower of Babel. And perhaps some writers today read the Bible privately as a sacred text, one too pure to require authors like themselves; or maybe they view it like a movie written by Hollywood hacks, “full of sound and fury, [though] signifying nothing,” unaware that this quote from Shakespeare has deeper,Biblical origins.
It wasn’t so strange for me to compare Blues singer Billie Holiday with the Book of Jonah, since I was born into a postwar world of unburdened youth culture and skin-deep soul searching–“body and soul” now implied a woman’s body dressed in a soulful, braless, refurbished granny dress. At best, the equally retro Billie Holiday cover of the song, revealing the hole inside the heart through which a soul might have escaped–envisioned by the now heroin-fueled great talent–would become diffused into our whole generation, aided by less harmful, softer, cheerier drugs.
But the original soul song was Jonah’s Hebrew psalm within the whale:
Water was all around me
penetrating to my soul: I was almost gone
devoured by a flood
Seaweeds were tangled
around my head
I sank to the depths
I went down to the roots
the earth shut her gates
it was the end of the world
My soul was ebbing away within me…
This soul song of 2,500 years ago takes place within the body of a whale–as if Jonah’s body, like Billie Holiday’s, were swallowed by ineluctable despair. But who is the lover Billie is singing to? How could he or she be worth her surrender of body
and soul? Unless it’s her maker her soul itself is singing to, creator of both her life and the whale together. How would her Creator wreck her life, except by asking the seeming impossible–to speak in his name, in the name of creation, of her existence–when she is on the edge of self-doubt?
“I can’t believe it, it’s hard to conceive it
That you’d turn away–
Romance are you pretending–
it looks like the ending
Unless, I could have one more chance to prove, dear
My life a wreck, you’re making
You know, I’m yours for just the taking
I’d gladly surrender myself to you
Body and soul”
Jonah, however, a prophet in the sense he embodies all of Israel, is like a soul fleeing its body, ending up at the bottom of the sea. But the Creator can make a request of the whale, just as he had of the man. The great fish-mammal responds, as will Jonah in the end. The first sign of that response is this psalm/song in the whale’s belly: it’s his soul prompting him to respond to his maker, from the belly of death.
And a great fish was waiting
the Lord had provided
to swallow Jonah
And Jonah was a long time
within the fish body
three days three nights
and Jonah prayed to the Lord
within the mothering fish body—
he prayed to his God, saying
I cried out within my despair
I called to the Lord and he answered me
I implored him within the belly of death itself
Yet he heard my voice—
I was flung into the abyss
swept into the sea bottomless heart
Devoured by rivers
all your waves and walls of water
fell over me And I was saying I am lost
cast away, driven out
of your presence, from before your eyes
How will I see
your holy Temple again
if I am gone?
Water was all around me
penetrating to my soul: I was almost gone
devoured by a flood
Seaweeds were tangled
around my head
I sank to the depths
I went down to the roots
the earth shut her gates Behind me
it was the end of the world for me—and yet
From destruction you brought me to life
up from the pit
Lord my God
My soul was ebbing away within me
but I remembered the Lord
and my prayer came up to you
Up to your holy Temple
as if I were there
in your presence
Those who admire mists of illusion
to hide their fears
abandon the compassion of openness
But I with a thankful voice, not fearing
will make of sacrifice a thanksgiving
I will pay with gladness every vow I make
It is the Lord who delivers us
he is the captain of our praises
I will pay my fare gladly
I am his
And the Lord spoke to the fish
and it vomited Jonah out
onto dry land.
Does one have to believe in a Creator to hear Jonah’s song? Let’s say we can believe a neurotic and depressed poet like Jonah exists, and that a whale exists. What else exists here? The sea, land, seaweed, mountains, temples, language–all these we take for granted as existing in reality, not fantasy. But Jonah, like Billie Holiday’s voice, conceives “the end of the world,” his ultimate nonexistence. Although Otto Rank, in Psychology and the Soul, says that humankind’s wish for immortality has always required a version of the soul, Jonah, like secular people today, seems to have sidelined such need. Yet it’s one thing to disbelieve in our extension into nonexistence and another to doubt our own existence. Can we go so far as to not believe in our existence? Of course we can, though not without a level of anxiety that equals Jonah’s, as he seeks to escape “to the end of the earth”. When your despair reaches that deep, you have no need for society. Jonah’s anxiety about believing in the Creator’s words is finally resolved in the psalm he offers within the belly of death–because you can’t sing if you don’t believe there’s an audience. Billie Holiday in her stylings or the original Dada poets don’t stop making poetry; their work intuits creation and a belief in their existence. So I would ask, Is there really much difference between belief in existence and belief in–or wish for–immortality, i.e. a soul that comes from and returns to nonexistence? When classical psychoanalyst Otto Rank answered this question, he suggested that a modernist belief in the absence of a soul or a Creator still contained the seed of its wish. I’d add that wishes are also prayers, poems, songs–so that all our human creations require belief, if only belief in an existence bounded by nonexistence.
In the twenty-first century I’m watching a major news program in Hebrew via the international channel: a man who lost his wife yesterday in Israel, in a horrific crash, is being interviewed. He’s articulate and soberly answers question after question. What have you learned that led up to the accident? “I’m not interested in the accident; I only want to share the life of Shira, how life-giving she was to her family, her patients and to everyone she met.” The life of Shira and her two young children is now told in pictures, with commentary from her husband. This is not the kind of reportage we’re used to in the States. There are too many who died yesterday on the roads, in train, plane and boating accidents, in homicides and suicides. In a conversation a few years ago with novelist John Irving, who was passing through Princeton, he was being interviewed on German TV, where he’s a big hit in translation, and was asked about the Holocaust. “I don’t want to think about that when I’m in Germany,” he told them. “It’s like a colossal accident by a nation of mad, drunk drivers. I want to talk about their children, the Germans who are alive and who I meet here.”
I wanted to remind John he was talking to a Jew, so I shot back my experience of waiting in the Green Room before an interview on Israeli TV. The poet David Avidan, who for awhile was the Jack Paar of Israel, was interviewing a couple who survived a horrendous car crash (pictures of the demolished car were provided) and who said they had no memory of it, only of an out-of-body experience that suggested the afterlife. “It was a very different response than you get from Holocaust survivors,” I told John Irving. “Not out-of-body events.”
Few Jews in America were looking for a journal that exclusively published Jewish fiction/poetry and attempted to build a bridge between American and Israeli writers. The project was tenuous enough that it had to be called “Forthcoming” even after it began to appear.
Outside of the personal support of an editor in New York, the novelist Nessa Rapoport, the American facilitators at Moment magazine and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture were dubious and cried penury whenever a small subsidy was needed. Maybe that isn’t quite fair; the Jewish culture leaders claimed their mandate was to support scholarship and, mainly as a sideline, the “performing” arts, while Moment’s politically motivated editor worried that too much fiction was a cop-out from left-wing causes. How I managed to keep these reluctant backers in the game is beyond me; I think I insisted to them that the Israeli supporters would take responsibility for any problems, and I told the same to the Israelis (the publisher Hakibbutz Hameuchad) about the American affiliation. No one wanted any responsibility because none of them believed there was an audience, or even enough writers and translators to publish. While Nessa stood in for me in the US, I was as if underground, commuting between my Jerusalem apartment and Tel Aviv demi-office, shared with tough-minded, angelic Nili Cohen, to produce The New Yorker look-alike extravaganza, right down to the metal plates from which the issues were to be run off in Boston–Moment had to be kept under the impression that the Israelis were so gung-ho that they footed the entire printing bill. This was not the case. It was I who was the only putative Israeli responsible, persuading the contributors that a parochial publication would further their worldly ambitions; so I performed all the editing and printing services myself, including paste-up at the printer’s empty factory on several Shabbat weekends, coercing Israeli artists to contribute illustrations and to pay for the negatives, etc. All of this on a strict deadline for Moment’s publication date, that could only be accomplished by sweet-talking Israel’s foreign ministry into allowing use of the diplomatic pouch to get the printer-ready issue stateside. I could not have afforded the hundreds of dollars it cost to send it express, and even then risking delays, diversions, even loss.
So after months of preparation, I was sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe with my graphic artist Eli Gilad, an idealistic kibbutznik who asked for no compensation, going over the final paste-up. It was Shabbat and I’d have to catch a gypsy sherut-taxi to get to Jerusalem around midnight, carrying about 20+ lbs of one-of-a-kind plates, manuscripts, and original artwork. I would then stay up until 6 AM, getting the work to the Foreign Ministry in time to arrive in Boston on Monday. And then, leaving the FM office, I’d have no idea if the shot had made it into the net until I actually saw the printed copies a month later. My haberdasher uncles, who played Maccabi soccer in their Lithuanian youths, might have been proud I’d acquired some tricky salesmanship back in Detroit, even if the end result was no profit…
David Rosenberg is an American poet, biblical translator, editor, and educator. He is best known for The Book of J (with Harold Bloom) and A Poet's Bible, which earned PEN Translation Prize in 1992.Read more
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