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Once in the West: Poems

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One of The New York Times' 10 Favorite Poetry Books of 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist Winner of the 2015 Philosophical Society of Texas Award of Merit in Poetry A searing new collection from one of our country's most important poets Memories mercies mostly aren't but there were I swear days veined with grace —from "Memory's Mercies" Once in the West, Christian Wima One of The New York Times' 10 Favorite Poetry Books of 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist Winner of the 2015 Philosophical Society of Texas Award of Merit in Poetry A searing new collection from one of our country's most important poets Memories mercies mostly aren't but there were I swear days veined with grace —from "Memory's Mercies" Once in the West, Christian Wiman's fourth collection, is as intense and intimate as poetry gets—from the "suffering of primal silence" that it plumbs to the "rockshriek of joy" that it achieves and enables. Readers of Wiman's earlier books will recognize the sharp characterizations and humor—"From her I learned the earthworm's exemplary open-mindedness, / its engine of discriminate shit"—as well as his particular brand of reverent rage: "Lord if I implore you please just please leave me alone / is that a prayer that's every instant answered?" But there is something new here, too: moving love poems to his wife, tender glimpses of his children, and, amid the onslaughts of illness and fear and failures, "a trace / of peace."


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One of The New York Times' 10 Favorite Poetry Books of 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist Winner of the 2015 Philosophical Society of Texas Award of Merit in Poetry A searing new collection from one of our country's most important poets Memories mercies mostly aren't but there were I swear days veined with grace —from "Memory's Mercies" Once in the West, Christian Wima One of The New York Times' 10 Favorite Poetry Books of 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist Winner of the 2015 Philosophical Society of Texas Award of Merit in Poetry A searing new collection from one of our country's most important poets Memories mercies mostly aren't but there were I swear days veined with grace —from "Memory's Mercies" Once in the West, Christian Wiman's fourth collection, is as intense and intimate as poetry gets—from the "suffering of primal silence" that it plumbs to the "rockshriek of joy" that it achieves and enables. Readers of Wiman's earlier books will recognize the sharp characterizations and humor—"From her I learned the earthworm's exemplary open-mindedness, / its engine of discriminate shit"—as well as his particular brand of reverent rage: "Lord if I implore you please just please leave me alone / is that a prayer that's every instant answered?" But there is something new here, too: moving love poems to his wife, tender glimpses of his children, and, amid the onslaughts of illness and fear and failures, "a trace / of peace."

30 review for Once in the West: Poems

  1. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    It's Wednesday, and I don't tend to do Goodreads poetry reviews on Wednesday. (At least not well.) My gut reaction is that I'm rounding up to 4 stars. I think I liked his previous collection better, but this one seems more personal, more intimate, more haunted since you are intensely aware, throughout, of Wiman's incurable cancer. My main complaint was there were too many long, skinny poems that often seemed to lack the charged language necessary for long, skinny poems. That said, there were alm It's Wednesday, and I don't tend to do Goodreads poetry reviews on Wednesday. (At least not well.) My gut reaction is that I'm rounding up to 4 stars. I think I liked his previous collection better, but this one seems more personal, more intimate, more haunted since you are intensely aware, throughout, of Wiman's incurable cancer. My main complaint was there were too many long, skinny poems that often seemed to lack the charged language necessary for long, skinny poems. That said, there were almost always good lines within those poems. In other words there were parts of poems I liked better than their overall whole, which I sometimes didn't quite understand. But that could be lazy reading on my part. There are also a number of poems in this collection that just blew me away. I need to go back and re-read a few, so consider this a placeholder review until this weekend.

  2. 4 out of 5

    J.A.A. Purves

    I don't know if it is the way that Wiman ordered them, or if his poems just gradually awakened my sensibilities for the different layers of meaning that he has placed in them, but these poems seemed to grow more and more powerful the further along in the book that I read them. "Prayer," "Calculus," "Keynote" and "Music Maybe" are all early favorites. Then "Black Diamond" and "We Lived" hit home deeper than I expected them too. But things only get better from there. The language of "Believing Gree I don't know if it is the way that Wiman ordered them, or if his poems just gradually awakened my sensibilities for the different layers of meaning that he has placed in them, but these poems seemed to grow more and more powerful the further along in the book that I read them. "Prayer," "Calculus," "Keynote" and "Music Maybe" are all early favorites. Then "Black Diamond" and "We Lived" hit home deeper than I expected them too. But things only get better from there. The language of "Believing Green" is beautiful. I will be re-reading "Into the Instant's Bliss," "The Preacher Addresses the Seminarians" and "Self-Portrait, with Preacher, Pain, and Snow" over and over again over the next month. "The Secret" is one of the most mysterious poems in the book that seems to blur the distinction between meaning and things meaned. I will be savoring and meditating upon lines like "... felt, she said, each seed surreptitiously split / the adamantine dark, believing green ..." and "When heaven fears its secrets will be told / it tells them to the least and the lost of us ..." and "God's absolute otherness / and electrons that seem to read / researchers' minds, the crux / at which to assert and to assent / become the same abrading verb ..." for a long while after. And then, the third section, "More Like the Stars" is beyond my ability to describe. I will be re-reading it again shortly. Thank you, Mr. Wiman. You have given us another book that we can cherish and that will be worth reading and pondering over for years to come.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Rachel Edney

    I’m speechless

  4. 4 out of 5

    C

    Such an "ecstatic ruckus." My favorite book of Wiman's so far. The end of the final poem-- . . .once in the Shedd aquarium in Chicago I floated a moment with my love and the two new lives borne from us who loved best the eensy green almost unfish. . . For me for a long time not the minnows mattered but the pattern after: miraculous I didn't think to think: all those mite-eyes and animate instants answering at once to my need and to nothing as if my very nerves worked in finally a saving sense Something in us Such an "ecstatic ruckus." My favorite book of Wiman's so far. The end of the final poem-- . . .once in the Shedd aquarium in Chicago I floated a moment with my love and the two new lives borne from us who loved best the eensy green almost unfish. . . For me for a long time not the minnows mattered but the pattern after: miraculous I didn't think to think: all those mite-eyes and animate instants answering at once to my need and to nothing as if my very nerves worked in finally a saving sense Something in us touches suffering touching us like the constellations of kinetic quiet that bound us beyond us as right to the wall the girls pressed their still-forming faces through which the wild new schools flew almost too green too blue to stand And I held your hand.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Shawn

    While the beginning of the book (maybe the first dozen poems or so) had me worried that "Every Riven Thing" was an unusual poetic achievement for Wiman, the work very quickly returned to his powerful and intriguing command of language and form. There are several standouts, but it felt as though each poem built on the energy of those before it, culminating in the third section of the book, More Like The Stars, with poems that are the most challenging and most distinct in the volume. Wiman's exper While the beginning of the book (maybe the first dozen poems or so) had me worried that "Every Riven Thing" was an unusual poetic achievement for Wiman, the work very quickly returned to his powerful and intriguing command of language and form. There are several standouts, but it felt as though each poem built on the energy of those before it, culminating in the third section of the book, More Like The Stars, with poems that are the most challenging and most distinct in the volume. Wiman's experience of illness is present throughout the book, which I think gives many of the poems their urgency, but I think it can also be seen the more reflective poems where the speaker rummages through memories and places of times past. Overall, I think this is an excellent read, and I look forward to spending more time with these poems.

  6. 4 out of 5

    David Haller

    Structurally interesting? Is that a compliment? Many years ago, I had this idea that it could be interesting to compose a piece of writing based on the flow of sound rather than flow of meaning - and that's kind of what Wiman does here with his bridging of word boundaries. Now I know that, while a cool idea, it's not particularly fun to read. More concisely, Wiman's poetry "babbles". I'm not going to say his work isn't shelf-worthy - indeed, it's best enjoyed picking it up and reading a selection f Structurally interesting? Is that a compliment? Many years ago, I had this idea that it could be interesting to compose a piece of writing based on the flow of sound rather than flow of meaning - and that's kind of what Wiman does here with his bridging of word boundaries. Now I know that, while a cool idea, it's not particularly fun to read. More concisely, Wiman's poetry "babbles". I'm not going to say his work isn't shelf-worthy - indeed, it's best enjoyed picking it up and reading a selection from time to time, or mining for evocative phrases - but it can wait in line after more essential works.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Zack Clemmons

    First, I'm very grateful for the academic calendar, which remains the sanest, most humane work-leisure balance of any profession I know of, and which provided ample time for an end-of-year book cramming. Second, this collection slays, in 2017 parlance. It's like taking that sublime sequence of West Texas faces and Bardem's priest's ministry from Malick's To The Wonder and diving into it for a book-length treatment. Language cut to the quick, images that linger (the sparks of the El, the repeated First, I'm very grateful for the academic calendar, which remains the sanest, most humane work-leisure balance of any profession I know of, and which provided ample time for an end-of-year book cramming. Second, this collection slays, in 2017 parlance. It's like taking that sublime sequence of West Texas faces and Bardem's priest's ministry from Malick's To The Wonder and diving into it for a book-length treatment. Language cut to the quick, images that linger (the sparks of the El, the repeated vein motif). Pain, labor, struggle, hardwon briefs of peace. And you can't read that last poem aloud without weeping. I'm grateful for Wiman.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Abby

    "Christ's ever unhearable/and thus always too bearable/scream." Five stars because: Wiman. So good. So fresh and unmistakable. His delight in neologisms and reckoning with death and faith will always leave me in raptures. I think I liked this less than "Every Riven Thing," perhaps because I do not have any knowledge of or affection for Texas (or the idea of Texas), but it's excellent all the same. Recommended. "Christ's ever unhearable/and thus always too bearable/scream." Five stars because: Wiman. So good. So fresh and unmistakable. His delight in neologisms and reckoning with death and faith will always leave me in raptures. I think I liked this less than "Every Riven Thing," perhaps because I do not have any knowledge of or affection for Texas (or the idea of Texas), but it's excellent all the same. Recommended.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Douglas

    Six stars. Seven. A poet is brought to the brink of death by a ferocious cancer. He lives through it and chronicles, in verse and stanzas, not just the pain, but a love that he found worth living far. This book of poems is life.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Christina “6 word reviewer” Lake

    Reaches into void left by Dickinson!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Conor Hilton

    I don't read much contemporary poetry, but if this is any indication of the beauty that is out there I definitely should start. Wiman's poems are evocative and emotional and spiritual and sometimes I can't quite place my finger on why, but I feel something powerful. There's at moments a welding of the crass and vulgar with the sacred that might strike some as insensitive (or blasphemous), but that signaled a grounded, complex spirituality to me. There's a lot here to dig into more fully and I'm I don't read much contemporary poetry, but if this is any indication of the beauty that is out there I definitely should start. Wiman's poems are evocative and emotional and spiritual and sometimes I can't quite place my finger on why, but I feel something powerful. There's at moments a welding of the crass and vulgar with the sacred that might strike some as insensitive (or blasphemous), but that signaled a grounded, complex spirituality to me. There's a lot here to dig into more fully and I'm excited to do that.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sam Sched

    Top three faves: Believing Green Into the Instant’s Bliss Witness runner ups after a storm Self portrait, with a preacher, pain and snow Little killing ditty Loves Last Memory’s mercies

  13. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    I might have a new favorite living poet.

  14. 5 out of 5

    James

    I love Wiman's poetry so much. I love Wiman's poetry so much.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jody

    How to rate this slim volume of mostly two-line stanzas strung together? Maybe with two stars...certainly not three, because that would be to say I liked these poems. I didn't. But once I began, I couldn't quit drinking the words down to see how they would taste. They tasted like a bitter Hopkins, if he had lived in modern America. They tasted like loss, hard edges, deep blackness, and wells of tears. Not things I normally mind the taste of, but these were laced with acridness unslaked. There wa How to rate this slim volume of mostly two-line stanzas strung together? Maybe with two stars...certainly not three, because that would be to say I liked these poems. I didn't. But once I began, I couldn't quit drinking the words down to see how they would taste. They tasted like a bitter Hopkins, if he had lived in modern America. They tasted like loss, hard edges, deep blackness, and wells of tears. Not things I normally mind the taste of, but these were laced with acridness unslaked. There was little to no beauty limned in for relief. And in truth, some lives (too many lives) are like that—arid, acid, acrid, aching...with no relief. So, maybe five stars? *Note: There is some strong language scattered throughout Wiman's collection.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey (Akiva) Savett

    Wiman's new collection is absolutely fantastic. Between this set of poems, Every Riven Thing, and My Bright Abyss, his essay about modern spirituality, Wiman has quickly become one of my favorite writers and thinkers. I've read somewhere that the greatest compliment an artist can give another is to say "I wish I'd written that." Such a wish is certainly true of so many of Wiman's poems in this book. The hallmarks of Wiman's style in these poems is his play with word sound in the form of rhyme and Wiman's new collection is absolutely fantastic. Between this set of poems, Every Riven Thing, and My Bright Abyss, his essay about modern spirituality, Wiman has quickly become one of my favorite writers and thinkers. I've read somewhere that the greatest compliment an artist can give another is to say "I wish I'd written that." Such a wish is certainly true of so many of Wiman's poems in this book. The hallmarks of Wiman's style in these poems is his play with word sound in the form of rhyme and invention and his shaking up of traditional syntax. There are literally too many wonderful examples to pick some to quote here, so I will simply suggest reading this book as soon as possible, specifically, the poems "The Preacher Addresses The Seminarians " (which the New York Times called a "near masterpiece"), "Black Diamond," "Between," and the longish untitled section at the book's conclusion which begins "I don't want to be alive anymore." The latter is the single best piece of writing I've ever found which accurately captures the chaos, pain, sublimity, isolation, and dehumanization of illness.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ellie

    Read it aloud. "When heaven fears its secrets will be told it tells them to the least and the lost of us:" or "stabdazzling darkness, icequiet:" and "Here, have a verse for your wife's death. Here, have a death for your life's curse. I tell you some Sundays even the children's sermon --maybe especially this--sharks your gut like a bite of tin some beer-guzzling goat either drunkenly or mistakenly decides to sample. I know what you're thinking. Christ's in this. He'll get to it, the old cunner, somewhere som Read it aloud. "When heaven fears its secrets will be told it tells them to the least and the lost of us:" or "stabdazzling darkness, icequiet:" and "Here, have a verse for your wife's death. Here, have a death for your life's curse. I tell you some Sundays even the children's sermon --maybe especially this--sharks your gut like a bite of tin some beer-guzzling goat either drunkenly or mistakenly decides to sample. I know what you're thinking. Christ's in this. He'll get to it, the old cunner, somewhere somehow there's the miracle meat, the aurora borealis blood, every last atom compacted to a grave and the one thing that every man must lose to save."

  18. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    I don't think I can review this after just one reading. It's still ringing in my ears... But I'll say this: Where it is brilliant, it is jaw-droppingly so. It begs to be read aloud and I'd like to make a list of all the awesome blended words he creates in this collection. Just fantastic stuff. But then there were poems that... were too mysterious and modern and did the kinds of things that people hate poetry for doing. I felt a little left in the dust on some poems. But that is likely my own fau I don't think I can review this after just one reading. It's still ringing in my ears... But I'll say this: Where it is brilliant, it is jaw-droppingly so. It begs to be read aloud and I'd like to make a list of all the awesome blended words he creates in this collection. Just fantastic stuff. But then there were poems that... were too mysterious and modern and did the kinds of things that people hate poetry for doing. I felt a little left in the dust on some poems. But that is likely my own fault. But that is what poetry tries to get you to think... that it's brilliant and you're just stupid for not getting it. So I'm resisting that conclusion. Even though it might be accurate.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Beatrice Drury

    Not long ago I reviewed a book of poetry and told how I liked the subject matter but bemoaned the fact that the poetry had no rhythm and was difficult to read. This book of poetry reversed that opinion. This book was a joy to read because there was beautiful rhythm and the words rolled off the tongue with pleasure. However..... I found the ideas the author wanted to convey by and large incomprehensible. Yes I did understand and enjoy a few poems but the majority did not mean anything to me.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Hiskes

    Like Wiman's recent essays, these poems are dense, rich, and deserving of more attention than I can muster most nights. They stare at mortality and despair like spidering cracks in the windshield. One of my favorites, "Even the Demon," begins, "It takes a real cow / to bite beyond / the prickly pear's / sharp spokes." I like that. Strange fruit encased in sharp spokes. It takes a real cow. Like Wiman's recent essays, these poems are dense, rich, and deserving of more attention than I can muster most nights. They stare at mortality and despair like spidering cracks in the windshield. One of my favorites, "Even the Demon," begins, "It takes a real cow / to bite beyond / the prickly pear's / sharp spokes." I like that. Strange fruit encased in sharp spokes. It takes a real cow.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    Wiman is n essayist and poet of the highest order. I can remember clearly his talk at Christ Episcopal in Charlottesville last year and can see so much of his new language of faith in this collection. A wonderful way to spend an hour, and then start again.

  22. 4 out of 5

    David

    Beautiful and sad. One of my favorite writers.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    I was a little bit disappointed, after having read Every Riven Thing, which I really enjoyed, this one is just not quite as striking.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Clement

    This year, 2018, I've intentionally tried to read more poetry and, of the poetry collections I've read this year, Christian Wiman's Once in the West has been one of my favorite. Wiman's poetry that dealt specifically with spirituality were, in my opinion, the best in the collection, he has a rawness in his voice that is refreshing because it's not an angry bitter ranting sort of rawness but, rather one that is honest but, maintains grace. Into the Instant's Bliss, The Preacher Addresses the Semi This year, 2018, I've intentionally tried to read more poetry and, of the poetry collections I've read this year, Christian Wiman's Once in the West has been one of my favorite. Wiman's poetry that dealt specifically with spirituality were, in my opinion, the best in the collection, he has a rawness in his voice that is refreshing because it's not an angry bitter ranting sort of rawness but, rather one that is honest but, maintains grace. Into the Instant's Bliss, The Preacher Addresses the Seminarians, Coming into the Kingdom, and Little Religion are good examples. Take a look at Into the Instant's Bliss: Into The Instant's Bliss Into the instant's bliss never came one soul Whose soul was not possessed by Christ Even in the eons Christ was not. And still: some who cry the name of Christ Live more remote from love Than some who cry to a void they cannot name. The poem sounds like something the Apostle John could have written to the seven churches in the book of Revelation. the approach resembles the approach in the Apostle John's letters: I know your good works but, I have this against you. It's convicting, calling out hypocricy clearly and without hesitation but, still extending grace by identifying the problem and offering the contrast and solution that souls need to be "possessed by Christ" and His love and not merely, in the words of the Apostle Paul, a noisy gong or clanging cymbal that "cry the name of Christ." Apart from Wiman's spiritual poetry, I also loved the poem Black Diamond, one of the poems in the collection not dealing with spirituality. Wimen's poetry has a beautiful sound to it, I can't pretend that I understood the meaning of every poem but, the feel and sound of the words have a lyrical musicality to it, like tongues, that, even if I couldn't understand the meaning of the poem, there was a beauty to be experienced.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Paul Scott

    HAVING ENJOYED WIMAN'S anthology Joy, I felt inspired to catch up on his own poetry. This is not his most recent collection, as he published one last year, but rather the successor to Every Riven Thing. Once again we get dollops of Hopkins in the sound of the poems ("big-boned Joe Sloane shrivelcrippled / tight as tumbleweed") and in their sense (wonder streaked with anguish), but I suspect the crucial influence here is Dante. Once in the West strikes me as a miniature Divina Commedia. Part One, HAVING ENJOYED WIMAN'S anthology Joy, I felt inspired to catch up on his own poetry. This is not his most recent collection, as he published one last year, but rather the successor to Every Riven Thing. Once again we get dollops of Hopkins in the sound of the poems ("big-boned Joe Sloane shrivelcrippled / tight as tumbleweed") and in their sense (wonder streaked with anguish), but I suspect the crucial influence here is Dante. Once in the West strikes me as a miniature Divina Commedia. Part One, "Sungone Noon," mainly recalls Wiman's childhood and youth in west Texas, but feels more infernal than Wordsworthian, heat-blasted, desperate, scoured of anything that feels like meaning or hope. Part Two, "My Stop is Grand," is a little like Purgatory--mainly work and moving in seemingly endless circles, but with little explosions of grace punctuating the grayness, like the "grace of sparks" seen on the Chicago El train in the poem that lends its title to the section, mentioned again in the section's concluding "Poem for Edward Thomas." So Part Three, "More Like the Stars," should be paradise, but paradisos are not easy to pull off my friends...not easy at all. The title certainly points towards Paradiso--"stelle," "stars," is the final word of all three parts of The Divine Comedy. But what we get as the conclusion to Wiman's small-scale Divine Comedy is an even smaller scale Divine Comedy, a three-part poem. It begins in a hospital (a good stand-in for hell, I think), proceeds through the faith-under-strain section that opens with the lines "What rest in faith / wrested / from grief," then concludes with Wiman at Shedd Aquarium with his family, which actually makes a convincing heaven. I ordered the new collection, Survival Is a Style, and hope to get to it sooner than six years from now.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Trey

    "Memories mercies mostly aren't but there were I swear days veined with grace" "I said Lord, Lord in the speechless way of things that bear years, and hard weather, and witness." These poems have and an edge and a cynicism to them that Every Riven Thing didn't. That said, he has such command of every word and line and idea and it tends to sit with you. This isn't my favorite of his, and I wouldn't recommend it to someone reading poetry for the first time, as it can be dense at times, but it was moving an "Memories mercies mostly aren't but there were I swear days veined with grace" "I said Lord, Lord in the speechless way of things that bear years, and hard weather, and witness." These poems have and an edge and a cynicism to them that Every Riven Thing didn't. That said, he has such command of every word and line and idea and it tends to sit with you. This isn't my favorite of his, and I wouldn't recommend it to someone reading poetry for the first time, as it can be dense at times, but it was moving and true and I will revisit it in time.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Steven Peck

    I wanted to like this more than I did. Because I love Wiman's prose unabashedly, I expect the same experience from his poetry. I found the poems meaningful and well done, but didn't connect with them. I found the the ideas . . . not plumbed in the depth I was looking for. Perhaps, I need to try more of his work to first develop a sense of what he's doing, then come back and look at these again. Because I'm a fan I suspect that 'its me, not you' and want to try these again sometime. I wanted to like this more than I did. Because I love Wiman's prose unabashedly, I expect the same experience from his poetry. I found the poems meaningful and well done, but didn't connect with them. I found the the ideas . . . not plumbed in the depth I was looking for. Perhaps, I need to try more of his work to first develop a sense of what he's doing, then come back and look at these again. Because I'm a fan I suspect that 'its me, not you' and want to try these again sometime.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Joe

    I wasn't too plussed with the content of these poems. His ever-changing tack toward individual and organized religion seemed a little cynical at times, and at other times it seemed too overly pious or devoted. It just didn't jive with my soul. Oh, well. To each his own. What I did enjoy was the word play--the sounds and the structure--it was musical. I wasn't too plussed with the content of these poems. His ever-changing tack toward individual and organized religion seemed a little cynical at times, and at other times it seemed too overly pious or devoted. It just didn't jive with my soul. Oh, well. To each his own. What I did enjoy was the word play--the sounds and the structure--it was musical.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Brian Kohl

    This collection of poems is a searing theodicy ("seeking to justify the ways of God to man"), and Wiman so intimately understands the problem of pain that faith seems small in comparison. Tough to read; worthwhile. This collection of poems is a searing theodicy ("seeking to justify the ways of God to man"), and Wiman so intimately understands the problem of pain that faith seems small in comparison. Tough to read; worthwhile.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Brian Thatcher

    I read his essays on faith. It was fantastic. His poetry is much the same. Knowing some of his story helps crack into the meaning of a lot of his poetry. I like he he used different styles. Reading it makes life more beautiful and bitter.

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