Marnay. May 2017

Marnay. May 2017

First Afternoon, Camac in Marnay.

Outside my window here in the tower, buds of the wild rose wave in a breeze against the clouds of a chilly sky, and the shrill chattering of schoolchildren rises and falls through the courtyard, though all I can see through the wood-shuttered casement window above my desk is the stone ell of the building across from me, the thick-walled stone manor from when? 16th or 17th century? It is covered with mossy tiles where pigeons roost, from time to time, then fly off again over the Seine, which, here, is quiet and clean enough to swim in, as I did the June I was here before, though I did not bring a suit this time. The children have come to make art and their teachers shepherd them into a studio near my room where they do something or other involving popsicle sticks or leaves or paint, until, released, they chase each other once again around the gravel. Nightmares last night as, overtired, I tried to sleep—something about the past, no doubt, about my divorce and separations from my children. My friend in Paris said that when I email with him, these days, I am no longer “psychological”—his word—meaning introspective, I guess, and it is true enough. I can never, will never, come to the end of the suffering I caused; this is ancient history but like all the undead it reaches its bony fingers out to chill our lives. Therefore instead, focus on the flowers in a glass on my windowsill: buttercups, Mayflowers, white daisies tipped with pink as if somebody dipped them in currant juice, mustard flowers, ah. Forget-me-nots.

Logs lie stacked in the fields.
Woods that were here three years ago are gone.

Across the river a chainsaw whines,

and further off, vapor from the nuclear station
rises nonstop skyward. This is the world,

no paradise. But a duck flops into the water,

ffllthwip, and splashes toward the bridge,
and cuckoos and mourning doves

cuckoo and coo. Slowly my jaw unclenches.

May I forgive.
May those I have hurt grant me forgiveness.

O heron, come back, come back, through the slow rain.


The moon rises, a shallow boat through the trees. Strange calls of night birds pierce the darkness somewhere in town, somewhere on the river. I shiver outside my room on the wet grass, where I can get a cell connection, talking to my husband, but it’s awkward because I am here, he is there, he cannot see what I see, the thick stone walls, the pumpkin-colored moon, cannot hear the scooping near-shriek of the night birds, and I am not with him in the Mississippi rain, I do not have to sort bills or cross my fingers for a parking place at school or hack out the bamboo that runs wild in our yard each May, so we mostly resort to I love you, I love you. Which means, I love you, but which also means, there are things we do not talk about, we do not chatter easily. Sometimes we’re pleased how much we’re alike, sometimes we’re grieved how much we’re different. For instance, when I say the outskirts of Paris are hideous I do not want to be told that the outskirts of all big cities are hideous, I want to continue envisioning the mute blocks of concrete apartments, row after row after row, that look dirty as soon as they are made, specifically those apartments, this yesterday, on a highway clogged with traffic and construction. He’s almost never wrong, but he almost always jumps to the political reality, whereas I do not want to think about how fucked up in general the world is—though it is. Still, right now, I just want to see this thing, this thing, and this thing.

What is it in the moon
that pulls the cries out of the birds?

Later, the night mists over, with Venus,

the Big Dipper, just a few dim stars.
Once the moon is high, the birds grow silent.

May 5. Le Jardin Botanique.

If I could be invisible I would sit here on a bench in the Jardin Botanique and listen to the birds. I would not exist apart from that listening. Seventy, now, I am what my new acquaintances see as old. In the mornings I don’t permit myself to sally forth careless, but am obsessed with my hair, makeup, outfit—earrings and scarf just to cross the courtyard to make my coffee and cut my bread and cheese. Tempting to hide in my room. Because of my arthritis, I can’t ride a bike, can’t walk as far as town and back, have to ask others to open jars. There’s so much shame and anxiety simply in having a body. The other day, in Paris, I bought a beautiful blouse but looking at myself in the mirror I was appalled by my neck, my arms, that crepey skin extending from the slick silk. I said to the salesgirl, who was très mignonne and who asked me what I thought, Oui, je l’aime beaucoup, mais je voudrais mieux avoir trente ans. She laughed kindly.

But that’s silly. You look how you look. This is what you get, for a lifetime slurping up the dicta of Seventeen, then Cosmo, Glamour, Vogue.

Cuckoos, roosters, warblers, doves,
the peeping of baby chicks,

the day’s unceasing conversation.

A great black kite floats silently over
the river down which this melody flows—

Ants. Market.

A wet gray day with a sleepy sky. At the market in Nogent several of us trailed around for an hour and I bought hunks of reblochon, Saint Nectaire, something de Troyes which is a nearly local mild cream cheese, and Conté fruité, all cheeses I have read about, some I have eaten, so tonight we will have a tasting with melon, strawberries, apricots, baguettes, and salad—and, I imagine, wine. Coming home I discovered I have been overrun with ants. Imagine being so tiny that you can fit in the nearly seamless crack between a wall and a windowsill, and so numerous that, as fast as I squash them with wads of wet toilet paper, they keep coming. Since Monday is a jour férié to commemorate the end of World War II, the people who could address this problem won’t be back till Tuesday. The ants are adventuring on the wide sill of my casement window, and down the wall on to my desk, where they scoot around my papers. Ah well, these little scurriers, as long as they don’t nest in the warmth of my computer…

It becomes hypnotic to watch them. Now they don’t come down to my desk from the windowsill any longer, because I found out how they were doing it: using the postcards I’d propped against the ledge to remind me of home as ladders, climbing down the backs of them. Now they reach the sharp edge of the sill, peer over, and scuttle back. They climb up my glass of wildflowers, peer over the lip, and scuttle back. Mostly they’re just zooming around on their little tracks, looking for food I suppose, which is not there.

A woman stood by the market door
barely sheltered from the rain,
holding out tight bundles wrapped in tinfoil,
lilies of the valley, but no one was buying,
and no one was buying the slabs of brie noir
that the merchant across from her
had laid out at the corner of his stand, cheese
so aged it had shrunken and hardened,
nearly it looked like chocolate
but my Lord it stank, and no one was buying
the wrapped rounds of another cheese,
in tubs, through the film you could see
a mottled skin like something from the far side,
nearly deliquescent, furry-moldy,
Toru my fellow resident with whom
I was shopping and who spent the winter
in Paris said when you cut into it
it is sweet and creamy and I believe him.


In Aix-en-Othe some twenty or thirty sellers in black jackets stood behind tables with sparse collections of flea market goods in the rain. Adrian, Paula, and I squlched back and forth for a while, hoping to be inspired, but I grew more and more dismal feeling sorry for the sellers, reluctant to meet their eyes when they tried to persuade me to buy a tarnished oil lamp, a flowered teapot with its lid missing, a pitcher just slightly chipped, various wooden tools and rusty knives, and then, in one corner of the soggy field, racks of garish sweatshirts with cartoon figures emblazoned on them. Adrian got a pre-war Dinky toy and a pair of binoculars that he said were good and would have sold for five times the amount in Paris. Me, I got wet.

Paula says, Why buy anything new? Since they settled here last fall, in this beautiful old village Marnay-sur-Seine southeast of Paris right on the banks of the river, they’ve furnished their house with gifts from the neighbors and by shopping at brocantes. I came here first three years ago in June, to Camac, an arts center in a 16th-century manor house that Paula, my former colleague, recommended to me. She had been the year before, promptly went home, retired, bought a house and moved here with her husband, who told me that as a tiny child he survived the bombing of Coventry and was sent to a village in the English countryside, so that when he first saw Marnay he felt This is it, I’m home.

Ah, what is this life anyway,

I’ve washed my underwear with shampoo
and hung it to drip on the radiator,
now I’m listening to Jeff Buckley’s Grace,

shivering in my room as the tight buds
of a rosebush tremble outside my window

and the man who drowned in the Mississippi
River when he was younger than my sons
wails on Itunes, This is our last embrace . . .

didja say no, this couldn’t happen to me?

What’s this restlessness, my love,
do I actually want to buy a house and live

with you in Marnay, where the buttercups
shed their petals, raindrops hang shining
from the rose leaves, moss thickens on the roofs?

Or do I just want to travel the world forever?

May 8.

Nicole is the mayor, and she looks just like a mayor should: distinguished, stern, squarely built, strongly featured, dressed in black, full of the sense of an occasion. Today, a state holiday, commemorates the end of World War II. About thirty of us gathered at the Marnay cemetery, the metal gates to which were locked, but through which one could see weathered gravestones and a tall wrought iron crucifix. We stood by the side of the road in front of a commemorative pillar, the type ubiquitous in France, with the names of the local dead from World Wars I and II inscribed, as Nicole read a speech memorializing all those who had suffered and died in World War II—the maquis, the Free French, soldiers, deported ones, men women and children—and then one by one she intoned the names of the Marnay dead. After each name, she paused, and a proud old man wearing a coat with medals chanted “MORT POUR LA FRANCE.” We all bowed our heads for a moment of silence, and I thought with tears of my father, fighting three years in the South Pacific. Then we went to the Mairie, drank champagne for un verre d’amitié, and ate damp rounds of smooth bread with pâté de foie gras and a sliced half olive.

I thought of my father, head in his hands,

on a bench in the Omaha train station,
Christmas Eve of 1945. When my mother
came up to him and touched his shoulder

he looked at her stricken, before standing
to embrace her. My mother told me this,

and when I asked why he was so pained,
she said sharply, if you don’t know
I can’t tell you
. She wore blue when they

married three days later. He was gaunt
and his skin was orange from atabrine.

Because he lived through the war I exist,
who so easily might have slid into never
in New Zealand, New Guinea, the Philippines.

Dolce Far Niente.

At Marnay the Seine is narrow and calm, clean enough to swim in. Bushes and willows grow in the narrow patch of land between the river and Camac’s main room and balcony, dipping shadowy down to the water. To the left, a stone bridge leads out of town into managed poplar woods, each tree wrapped in mesh to keep out vermin. To the near right, an old rowboat founders, its bottom filled with algae and water. A pair of white swans glides up and down, up and down, all day long, and Maria says there’s a black swan too though I haven’t seen it. Ducks shelter beneath the willows. Swallows swoop and crisscross in the sky; the air is full of music.

Farther right there’s a public beach, a small slope of sand where three years ago, on sunny June mornings, I swam. I have to admit the guys who gather at this beach are glamorous—guys who grew up here, spent years working in China in tourism or film, then came back to Marnay to make furniture with hand tools, drink, and raise their own food. They’re glamorous in that weathered French way, with their cheekbones and raveling sweaters, and three years ago I had a little crush on Guillaume, young enough to be my son, who seemed to live from moment to moment whether in rain or sunlight, as I wished to live, and whom I sent a book by Gary Snyder.

But a couple of the guys who hang out at the beach—well, problem is, three years later, c’est la même chose, nothing much has changed except they’re older. Still flirting with the pretty young residents, married or unmarried. Easy come, easy go, here for a month or two….

Irises are in bloom now,
and great crimson roses
heady against the wall.

A grapevine climbs the gutter
where Maria sits on the grass
and braids a rosary of daisies.


One day I was lonely. My damn Sprint service had quit, so for several days I couldn’t phone home and hear my husband’s voice, and it was rainy and cold, and I felt rickety, arthritic, old, fat—whatever—ugly, unwanted, a failure, all those things I do to myself. I climbed in bed in the middle of the afternoon, under my crackly duvet which for some miraculous reason is always warm, and to Maurizio Pollini playing Lizst on my iTunes I slept and slept in the semidark, and those three hours will drift to the bottom of my memory.

I love how, in the Piano Sonata in B Minor, Liszt climbs to the same achingly sweet climax again and again—accompanied in the treble clef by daredevil trills and in the bass clef by much repetitive pounding. How many notes can you fit into a single run? It’s as if he covers his tenderness up with as much Romantic embellishment as possible, but then it breaks through every time.

Some bird while I was sleeping
kept saying qu’est-ce que c’est?

What is it? What is it?
Qu’est-ce que c’est?


Marine le Pen got 87 votes in Marnay in the second round of the recent election; Emmanuel Macron got 62. There are 206 registered voters here, of whom 168 voted. 7.74% of the ballots cast were blank. I learned this with some horror, because I do not want to think that preserving such a village and such natural beauty must depend on reactionary politics. There are residents from England, Argentina, Poland, Mexico, and visiting artists have come from Brazil, Korea, Japan, Palestine, Canada, Croatia, Australia, the United States. And there is a whole group of people in their thirties—artists, carpenters, actors—who have come back to Marnay, to live by what Gary Snyder calls “reinhabitation”—to declare their commitment to this bioregion and work to sustain or improve its cultural and environmental health. As Mathilde, the mayor’s daughter, told me, she used to live in Paris and work in theatre, but it was boring because “it had no sense of community.”

The nearby town of Nogent wants to make this a bedroom community. Two days ago, a group of people were clustered around the entrance gate to Camac, across the street from the twelfth-century church, and when I asked Damien, whom I had met at a party, what was happening, he said they were a commission to discuss a plan for Marnay’s future. I said I hoped it would remain an arts center and continue to become a crafts and environmental center. He completely agreed. Patricia, an artist from Argentina, has opened La Maison Verte, a residency for three artists. Mathilde has restored one ancient building to become a guesthouse and is restoring another to become a bar/café with a patio, food, and music. Kinga, from Poland, came to visit an artist friend at Camac, fell in love with Mathilde’s brother Leo, and stayed. She bakes bread, does construction, wants to learn to weave. Paula is painting, Adrian’s playing music. Andy, from England, who has lived here for years, knows everyone and helps with whatever’s going on.

Struggling to stay awake today till dinner,
I walked further to the northeast
than I’ve yet gone—along the Seine,

then turning, through monoculture stands
of poplar, some little, some taller, then on

an overgrown trail through hip-high grasses
and buttercups, until the trail stopped dead
with no visible way to reach the roof

I could barely see. Far off, a bright sky.
But around me, the light gleamed
pearl-gray, with white butterflies, gnats,

and swaying leaves. When I returned
to the river, tiny raindrops pocked the water.

Notre Dame de l’Assomption.

It’s so peaceful here now, it’s hard to believe this was an occupied country nearly within my lifetime, but the church bears the scars of the war. When they thought the Germans were coming, the people of Marnay blew up the bridge. They used too much dynamite and also blew the stained glass windows out of one wall. Now you can see where the windows were—a rose window, two small, two larger. Bricked and plastered over, the outlines remain.

Four times a year they open the church and a priest comes from elsewhere to celebrate Mass. Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the first manifestation of Our Lady of Fatima, who appeared six times to three children in Portugal, asking them to pray for the end of World War I—not that I knew this already. But seeing the sign advertising the Mass, and wanting to see the church, five of us went, along with ten other people including a middle-aged woman whom Father Didier described as his “wife” in Marnay—he said he has eight “wives”—women who prepare the village churches, get the flowers, take charge of music. She played the guitar, which means she strummed the same four notes over and over, plink plink plink plink, until Father Didier was ready to do the next thing. The average age of the people there was probably sixty, lowered by the fact that the two Korean/Canadian artists here, Maria and Soeine, are in their thirties and the priest was around forty. He said a person should never get self-righteous no matter how old he is, even if he’s 110—and the two old guys cracked up. Then the “wife” invited us along with Father Didier and the congregation to her beautiful seventeenth century house with an immaculate garden and roses blooming on the wall. She served savory tarts and pâté en croute, sparkling rosé and champagne–and I do have the feeling that I have now met some of the citizens who voted for Le Pen. Just a feeling… but after all, someone had to, and I’m pretty sure it’s not the young people we’ve been hanging out with.

In his sermon, Father Didier said the crucifix is horizontal, which symbolizes that Christians must reach out like Christ to embrace others, and it is vertical, which symbolizes that Christians must reach up toward God. He emphasized the part about reaching out toward others several times.

Now the river is all of a peace
with the singing and the light
mottled through clouds

and touching the tips of things—
antennae, a gutter, the steeple—

with silver. Someone has taken
the boat out from the beach.
In the distance, a man

in a red shirt poling, a woman
sitting, they glide across the river

and disappear into an inlet,
then re-emerge and hover
near the shore. Two white

doves rest on the Camac roof.
Two swans glide down the river.

Guillaume said, if you swim
in a soft rain at sunset,
and look up toward the sky,

sometimes the drops are golden.


When my Iphone lost reception in Marnay and the horrible little phone I bought promptly ran out of minutes, I began to pine for my husband’s voice, and went to Paris to call him and visit my friends. I took a bus to Nogent, then several hours later I caught a train.

In Nogent I saw a huge statue by Alfred Boucher, called La Piété filiale, in a park next to a kindergarten. It depicts a young woman standing, an older man kneeling with his head against her body. The plaque tells us that she is his daughter, he has been condemned to starve in prison, and she comes to visit so he may drink from her breast.

I walked around the streets, eating a chausson aux pommes which is an apple tart, and watched shadowy fish in an algae-covered pond swim among lily pads.

I came to a wall poster depicting a throng of hazy figures approaching you, their faces shrouded, and above and below the figures, the words Ils ont la haine / RESISTE! Avec LE PEN. Another shows an Arab man, arms folded, looking off into the distance, with the inscription La France on l’aime . . . Quand tu la quittes! These were glued to the wall of a windowless concrete building near the river, which either was or was advertising the Club Roger Nimier, the poster for which had a picture of a gun and below it, “HOW I MET YOUR MAUSER.”

A wasp has found my room. Since my window
doesn’t open, I squash it with a book.

Sometimes I squash the ants, too, scurrying
on the sill, in and out of my piles of drying roses.

Je lui ai montré où trouver de l’or, mais l’or qu’elle trouve est bien à elle.

“I showed her where to find gold; but the gold that she finds is her own.”
— Auguste Rodin, whose lover and muse was Camille Claudel.

At the brand-new Museé Camille-Claudel in Nogent, which owns about half of her works that survive, I couldn’t stop taking photographs of the sculptures, not only hers but also those by Rodin of her, and by other 19th-century sculptors who formed the milieu in which she worked. I brought back a postcard of Claudel’s sculpture of a child, Aurore, or Dawn, and seeing just the details of the child’s face, in black and white, singularly moves me. In profile the bronze Aurore looks up. Her head is tilted, just a little, her lips are softly parted, her cheek is rounded as an actual child’s would be.

I wanted Camille not to have been betrayed by Rodin. He promised to leave his long-term companion and be true to her, but didn’t, and wasn’t. I wanted the French authorities not to have been scandalized by and deny financial recognition to the woman who took a lover and sculpted naked bodies. I wanted Camille not to have destroyed her art, not to have needed an abortion, not to have gone mad (if that’s what it was), become a recluse and wandered around the streets in rags, not to have been confined to an asylum for over thirty years by her mother, who hated her, and her brother the writer Paul Claudel, who apparently said, “I am the only genius in the family.” I wanted the doctors and artists who tried to get her released to have succeeded.

In the museum, I could not help myself; I reached out to stroke the cheek of the child Aurore. Alarms went off and guards came running.

Nights, I turn to you to hold you,
my daughter once wrote
in her poem “Camille Claudel,”

that her high school journal
refused to publish
because it mentioned sex.

I turn to you to hold you, but you are not there.

Nogent market once again.

In French the flower Sweet William is called oeillet de poète and so because of the poet part I had to buy a bouquet. Strawberries were big as plums, and apricots were sweet and tawny, and when I asked the burly seller of cheeses if I could take his photograph behind the display of cantal and conté and fromage de Troyes and crème fraiche and tomme and something big and orange, he blushed, grinned, called his partner over to join him, and said, C’est pour madame, un souvenir. This repetition gives me pleasure: though I’ve only been there twice, I have chosen my seller of fruits, my seller of cheeses.

Pigeons warble on the mossy roof tiles,
softly grunting as they settle above me.

The little chicks are bigger now,
scurrying after their mothers

in the muddy farmyard. White roses
have exploded into bloom outside my window.


A family based in Nogent owns a lot of land here and wanted to build a factory adjacent to Marnay, something to do with agriculture that would smell, as Mathilde said, like rotting ham or a dirty diaper. Now that plan has been stopped but the danger of other development is not over, and the town council of Marnay has been asked by the state to draw up other proposals for un plan local de l’urbanisme. I talked to Damien again; he told me they want to preserve the wildlife corridors, protect the canal and river, support the Jardin Botanique and the programs of environmental education, conserve the church and other beautiful stone buildings, support artists and artisans in the local businesses and Camac, create a bike path between Troyes and Nogent, and come up with other ideas, as well. There is so much to cherish in and around this village. The council is collecting public comments, so we residents at Camac are writing letters.

For this air that smells of roses,
these poplars, their wisps of seeds drifting,
the children chattering in the courtyard

of Camac as their spatter-paint sheets dry,
the daisies thickly sprinkled through the grass
they lie on. For the bees that wiggle

their whole bodies deep in the cups
of flowers until they are covered with pollen,
and the birds whose calls by now speak

French to me: dites! bonjour dites! bonjour
bravo l’ équipe! bravo l’ équipe!

Bravo, team. Bravo, team. Say hi.

Thibault and the Charolais.

Dawn to midnight, the birds are never quiet. Cuk-coooooo-cuk a dove insists, over and over, and smaller birds peep from all around me whee-up or like hiccups, b-up! b-up! A cat slinks by the gate and disappears. I wonder if this is the cat that was presque mangé, as Nicole the Mayor said, nearly eaten, by Thibault, who is the large svelte dog of Jean-Yves, who directs Camac.

Last Friday the Mayor was looking for Jean-Yves, but he had left for the weekend. So yesterday, in his office, where I had wandered to Xerox some papers, she presented the official letter of complaint. Much back and forth, though I couldn’t catch it all—had Thibault in fact escaped? Where was the cat? Was it the cat that wanders on the property? How could Thibault be under suspicion when he is entirely trustworthy and never growls or snaps at the visiting schoolchildren? Ah yes but so-and-so is reported to have seen him. I’m not sure the matter was resolved, though Jean-Yves eventually signed and dated something. The Mayor said, in a conciliatory tone, C’est un petit village. Jean-Yves sighed wearily. Oui, c’est un petit village.

I’m walking toward the twilight
into a haze of seedfluff
like slowly falling sideways drifting snow.

Then, though it isn’t raining,
as I pass beneath the willows by the river
cold drops fall on my arms and head.

A herd of Charolais comes to the fence.
The color of crème fraiche,
they’re nearly glowing in the dusk. They press

together against the bars, curious
about me. A heron cries, fierce, circling.
Suddenly they skitter back.

Parce Mihi Domine.

There’s some painful history in this place about which we residents have been learning. This history has caused deep rifts between Camac and part of the village, rifts that will have to be healed if both Camac and Marnay are going to thrive. It came to the surface two days ago, at our vernissage, our Open Studios, in an encounter that ruined the occasion for both audience and artists. Yesterday was a day for long conversations, confrontations, around a table in the sunlight. I think it did some good. I hope they can go forward. All the residents have different opinions about what happened, some of us heated, none of us sure, and I just want to lay it down. So many ways to tell the story, which is, finally, tragic and unknowable.

I’m lying in the sun in the grassy courtyard, trying to bake a sinus infection, listening to Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble. I first heard this recording when my friend in Paris played it for me one gently raining twilight years ago. Parce mihi Domine, the first song begins. I looked the Latin up—“Spare me Lord, for my days are as nothing. What is Man, that you should make so much of us? . . . Behold, I shall now lie down in the dust: if you come looking for me I shall have ceased to exist”—and the grimness of the lines surprised me because the music is as tender as that soft gray light.

One of my friends died yesterday, back home.
My newest grandchild will be born next week.

Three Junes ago, the roses were first blooming.
This May, the roses are nearly ending.

But I woke up with the words in my head
seventy years of beauty.

For a few more days here,
my hours drift and float like the aerial seeds.

Ann Fisher-Wirth’s most recent project is a book-length poetry/photography collaboration, Mississippi, with the acclaimed Delta photographer Maude Schuyler Clay (Wings Press 2018). Ann’s other books of poems are Dream Cabinet, Carta Marina, Five Terraces, and Blue Window. With Laura-Gray Street, she coedited the groundbreaking Ecopoetry Anthology (Trinity UP 2013, 2014). Ann’s work appears widely and has received numerous awards, including the Mississippi Arts and Letters Poetry Award and two Mississippi Arts Commission poetry awards. Ann has had residencies at The Mesa Refuge; Djerassi Resident Artists Program; Hedgebrook; and CAMAC/Centre d’Art, Marnay, France. She was 2017 Anne Spencer Poet in Residence at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia. She is a Fellow 2015-2018 of the Black Earth Institute, the recipient of a senior Fulbright to Switzerland and a Fulbright Distinguished Chair award to Sweden, and past president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. She teaches and directs the Environmental Studies program at the University of Mississippi, and teaches yoga at Southern Star in Oxford.


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