Counterpoint Harmony

For Big Tent Poetry prompt – What is your favorite poem? What about it makes it your favorite? Does it contain an image that rocks your poetry world? Does it provide a realization that changes you? Do you admire its poetic devices (metaphor, alliteration, repetition, form, etc.)? Whatever it is you like about your favorite poem, try to use that in a poem of your own.

http://bigtentpoetry.org

Confession: I don’t have a favorite poem, I have hundreds of them and each one for a different reason. But the prompt put me in mind of something I did for my senior thesis in college. The thesis was done in three parts, the middle part, titled Counterpoint Harmony, contained poems I wrote in response to the poets I had explored and studied during my courses. I have chosen three of them to post to the prompt today (and no, it isn’t because I’m an overachiever).

Several weeks ago, I posted a poem titled The Call. In it, I alluded to the three elements I believe are essential if one is to define oneself as a writer: The Prophet, The Hermit, and The Poet. At least they are that for me. I did not start writing poetry until I was almost forty. These three people, their gift of words, represent those three essential elements for me.  And if I find even one of those elements in a poem, it immediately gets added to that long list of favorites.

Counterpoint Harmony

The first piece needs a bit of explanation. I was unaware that my mentor and adviser was a published poet. I found his poem in the back of a Literary Analysis textbook as a representation of good Modern American Poetry. I can not cite the poem, only give you a cite that lists the man’s credentials, and as I far as I know, Dr. Kummings is now retired.
http://homepages.uwp.edu/kummings/kummings.html

A bit of our story is chronicled in the About page on this site. His poem began with a comment about how Wallace Stevens invented 13 Blackbirds, continued to an image of a foreign market place in which he saw a crow. And somehow, through the alchemy of harmony and invention, ends with the statement the he invented Wallace Stevens. I loved it, created this piece in response, and gave it to him as a Christmas present one year.

       After The Waters Of Distress*

Donald Kummings invented Wallace Stevens
when he learned of the crow
hidden deep in the wings of a blackbird.

I have seen a glistening crow
flash dull scarlet flecks
as she strolled
through full summer sunlight.

And have known a type of blackbird
who wears the wound of her flight
as a bright crimson slash on her sleeve.

During those first forty years,
my blood moved as slow
as a sluggish stream in a low
almost barren landscape.
Then was quickened to a river
by the clear runoff
from a not too distant mountain.
Now cuts a new course
and waters that land,
sounding harmony
while fingering invention.

My blood is one
with the blackbird and crow,
the first a swift slash
the other, sunlit reflection.

Yes, I have read Wallace Stevens,
but have been taught
by Donald Kummings.

* When the Lord has given you the bread of suffering and the waters of distress, he who is your teacher will hide no longer, and you will see your teacher with your own eyes. Whether you turn to right or left, your ears will hear these words behind you, “This is the way, follow it.”

__  Isaiah 30:20-21
The Jerusalem Bible

_______

       When The Devil Spoke*
            (to Sharon Olds)

Yours was the first voice.
A Baptist crying in my wilderness,
and I was a blind woman,
yet to meet Lady Lazarus,**
believing that Mercy Street***
was no more than a haunting song
on a record album.

Fingertips pressed to the page,
I brailed your story
and felt in the shadows
of its spaces
a sense of my own.
You separated spirit from law
and entrusted it to my empty
cupped hands,
where I knew its flutter
on the inside curve
of my palm.

Too soon, you were joined
by a multitude,
each demanding a moment
at my thirsting ear,
but yours was the first voice,
from which I drank.

* Satan Says __ first book of poems by Sharon Olds
** Lady Lazarus __ poem by Sylvia Plath
*** 45 Mercy Street __ book of poems by Anne Sexton

Sharon Olds’ poetry can be found here:  http://www.poemhunter.com/sharon-olds/

_______

This last piece, again, needs a bit of explanation. I first heard Lucille Clifton read her poetry on a video tape inside a classroom. I watched as a large black woman, with short curly silver-white hair, stepped to the podium, looked straight into the camera, her eyes alight with joy and delight, as she read Ode To My Hips. And I knew, by the time she finished, what I wanted to be when I grew up (was forty at the time). The first section of this next poem was written before I graduated.

A few years later, I had the opportunity to go to Chicago and hear Lucille read her poetry live. At the end of the reading, she also read a series of five new poems which she had titled The Shapeshifter Poems. Three things happened that evening:
1. I knew that I had been correct that day in that classroom.
2. I waited afterward, for two hours to meet and get Lucille’s autograph. When I told her about my first response to the video, I was surrounded by the musical laughter that matched those bright alive eyes.
3. Before I could go to sleep that night, I got out my original manuscript of this poem and added the last section to it. When I begin to doubt the sense of what I do, I remember that night, this poem, and still know I am in the right place, doing the right thing. Rest in peace, Lucille.

       To Lucille Clifton

You make me wanna be black.
Not your skin honey, that’s just
the fragile bag which holds
your story. No, its the texture,
that substance within which absorbs
all other colors and then flashes
them back, one at a time
in a light of your choosing.

My hips too, are big, round
and weighted, no longer spin
a man like a top. Knit one once,
twenty years past, got tangled
in his turning.

I too, own a little girl inside.
Grew with trees, learned to bend
in a breeze, that carries music
of her own making.

You tell your women to laugh
at a white man’s good thing.
My white-haired mother said,
when I was forty, I was still
young enough to make something
of my failing.

You would have young boys
teach men to walk like men.
I would have a son to dance
more like me, less on string
tied to his father’s finger.

You remember your father
on Fridays, when you pay the bills.
I remember mine as a peace-at-any
price man, who with a disappointed
glance across our lived in space, could
cover me with guilt, leave me
yearning for redemption.

You call him Shapeshifter.
His daughter sleeps in my living
room. She calls him ‘The Big Guy,’
sometimes laughs at back
of her throat and names him
‘The Gorilla.’ I have traveled many
nights, the hallway from my bed
to where she moans, trembling
from night terrors, terrible dreams
that won’t allow her any real sleep.
Know your fury when you remember
there is nothing you will not bear
for this woman’s sake,
as I struggle to find words
that will call her from numbing
darkness which has held her captive
for over half of her existence.

Lucille, your name means Light,
and you are the brightness that calls
to me. You will always be a far better
poet, perhaps much wiser human being.
Please forgive me, for I will give
him no name. I will give him
nothing.

You can find Lucille Clifton’s poetry here:
http://www.poemhunter.com/lucille-clifton/poems/page-1/

As I said at the beginning of this post, these three individuals represent those three essential elements I find of utter necessity. They appear here, in the order in which they became a part of my awareness. It’s up to you to figure out which is which. As for me, if you are out there Dr. Kummings, I owe you big time, lol.

Elizabeth Crawford  7/23/10

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About 1sojournal

Loves words and language. Dances on paper to her own inner music. Loves to share and keeps several blogs to facilitate that. They can be found here: http://1sojournal.wordpress.com/ https://soulsmusic.wordpress.com/ http://claudetteellinger.wordpress.com/
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38 Responses to Counterpoint Harmony

  1. tillybud says:

    I really like your first one, particularly your final stanza.

    http://thelaughinghousewife.wordpress.com

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  2. 1sojournal says:

    Hi tillybud, Dr. Kummings meant a great deal to me and my experience. He seemed to like that final stanza as well. Thanks for reading and commenting,

    Elizabeth

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  3. derrick2 says:

    I like the second one very much and especially the first stanza of the third piece which seems a fine tribute to Ms Clifton.

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  4. systematicweasel says:

    I can’t tell you which one I liked, for I seemed to have liked them all. 🙂 These are all excellently written, and wonderful responses to the prompt! Great post!

    -Weasel

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  5. beyourownstory says:

    AH, Elizabeth:
    I can only say you are fulfilling your destiny. All lovely poems, but being a middle-aged woman with wide hips myself, I enjoyed the tribute to Lucille Clifton the most. Your voice is a clear bell, a little more soprano than Lucille.

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  6. brenda w says:

    The post may be long, Elizabeth, but it is definitely worth the trip. Your tribute to Kummings and Stevens is beautiful. Sharon Olds poetry speaks to me, and now yours is speaking to me, too. And I want to thank you for the introduction to Lucille Clifton. Excellent pieces, I’m glad you shared.
    ~Brenda

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  7. I can’t choose. I loved all!

    cut and dried

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  8. 1sojournal says:

    Derrick, I’ve always felt the Olds piece was a bit odd, but as I point out on my About page, I really didn’t understand her poetry, so much as felt my way through her entire book with my feelings. And I particularly like the first stanza of the Clifton poem because it’s absolutely true. Thank you for reading and commenting,

    Weasel, thank you. Secret? I like all three of them too!

    Oh Susan, you were there when I wrote these, and we were busy shooting pool and yakking in the coffee shop. That was a long time ago, and I miss it a great deal at times. I would have guessed you would like Lucille more than the others.

    Brenda, I sort of had the willies about doing this one. It seemed a bit much, but nailing down a favorite was too much like making a formal commitment and I certainly am not done yet, lol. Thank you much for the praise and I could read Lucille again and again and always find something that moves me. She is a wonder to me, but then I often wonder about myself,in a totally different sense, lol.

    gautami, lol, I think that there are many of us who feel that way, especially today. For an opinionated old woman, I simply prefer keeping all of my options open, or at least as many as possible. It keeps life far more interesting. I can say this, I especially look forward to reading your poetry, and find an incredible amount of inspiration there. Maybe some day, I will write one of these to you, but that shall remain our little secret, okay?

    Thank you all most heartily,

    Elizabeth

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  9. b_y says:

    I’ve never read Clifton, but your piece makes me want to. When I was in college, where I was in college, it would seem there were no black women poets (few women of any stripe, and only a token of black men)

    Like

  10. Elizabeth says:

    b_y, I was very lucky to go to college in the center of the Women’s Movement, and to be almost middle-aged when doing so. Authors like Lucille Clifton, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Gwendellyn Brooks altered my reality in ways I am still discovering twenty years after the fact. Not only did I get to take entire courses and read their works, I got to meet several of them as they toured campuses, sharing their words and experiences. I still hug myself for having that reality. Hope you do read, then come back and tell me of that experience. I would love to hear from you,

    Elizabeth

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  11. nan says:

    Great work and tributes – all three! The poem to Lucille is magnificent. Wowza.

    Like

  12. 1sojournal says:

    Lol, I like the Wowza, a lot. And am having a sort of deja vu experience as I read through the responses to this prompt. I think of those college years as some of my very best, and hold those memories with joy and deep pleasure. My experience with the prompts, the responses, and the comments has an intensely familiar aura about it that takes me back to what I consider the major milestone of my existence. The Wowza is wonderful frosting on the cake. Thank you,

    Elizabeth

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  13. pamela says:

    Elizabeth this is impressive writing!
    Wow!
    Pamela

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  14. 1sojournal says:

    Pamela, I thought yours was quite stunning as well. Thank you, especially for the Wow!

    Elizabeth

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  15. Bravo— this is poetry that sings on the page. Wonderful cadences, images and thoughtful structure.

    Years ago I was at a week-long writing workshop where Lucille Clifton was a speaker. One evening. she read for over an hour and then went outside to the porch. About ten of us sat on the porch—steps, chairs, railings. She talked about poetry, life and love. It was a special night.

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  16. Tumblewords says:

    Long? Yes. Lovely? Truly. I’m impressed by the energetic way you’ve tackled the prompt and the emergent words and thoughts. Strong and wishful, powerful and knowing. All. Yes. Wonderful!

    Like

  17. 1sojournal says:

    Hi Linda, thank you for you kind words. I envy you that evening. I had no more than five minutes of conversation with her and a line of people snaked around the auditorium lobby pushing at my back. But, those five minutes were a secret treasure to me. I may not have a favorite poem, but she is certainly my favorite poet.

    Elizabeth

    Tumblewords, I think I’m impressed as well, lol. The thought process was simple and easy, the resultant activity was not. I figured that I already had the poems, the rest would be just a matter of filling in the spaces. Ah, the things we do to ourselves, yes? When I finally had it all in place and looked at it, I almost hit the delete button. It was too much, too long, maybe too convuluted and would only make sense to me. But, then stopped myself because I realized that if I erased it, that would mean I’d have to write a new poem and start over from scratch. No way. I am just grateful that so many of you accept the follies and foibles of a North Wisconsin hillbilly. It was fun and well worth all the time and energy.

    Thank you again,

    Elizabeth

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  18. Lindsey says:

    I love poems that talk of writing or teaching as inventing, because it truly is. I also love poems that talk of other poets because I get to see someone else’s view of that poet or poem and I learn of some new poets to read. Great work.

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  19. 1sojournal says:

    Thank you Lindsey. I used to tell my students, when they complained about Writer’s Block to sit down and write about writing. They would look at me askance, like I must be nuts, but it works. In the process of doing it, one is reminded of other writers and can quickly become inspired by that association. I have a great deal of poetry about writing, lol. But these are definitely at the top of my favorites list. It is also why I love the prompts, especially those at BPT. Once a week I feel like I get to plug myself in to that creative current. There are so many really good poets in this group, and each one is an inspiration.

    Elizabeth

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  20. Mary says:

    Wow, you really took this prompt to the utmost, with three poems. Impressive. I always enjoy Lucille Clifton’s work. Sharon Olds, sometime….she can be quite dark, and I have to be into that kind of writing at the time. I agree with your comment about being inspired by the poets of Big Tent. Makes me realize how hard it would really be to be ‘discovered’ as an upcoming poet….the competition would be sooooo intense, and there doesn’t seem to be a big market for poetry books today.

    http://inthecornerofmyeye.blogspot.com/2010/07/turning-ten.html

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  21. vivinfrance says:

    Your writing, separately and all together, is an inspiration to us. I am particularly drawn to your Kummings poem, because he was the catalyst to turning you into a poet, for which I am truly grateful.

    The crow/blackbird also reminds me of a poem which I wrote after reading my UNfavourite poetry, Ted Hughes’ Crow, and in particular, Examination at the Womb-door. These poems are full of omens of death. My poem was called Life, and if I can find it, I will put it on my blog.

    Writing about writing may or may not be self-indulgent, but it surely is cathartic and block-busting!

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  22. 1sojournal says:

    Mary, I love the fact that Lucille means Light, she certainly was that in my case, showing me that everyday, ordinary things can be extrordinary if given that tone and voice of wonder and childlike awe, I find so often in her verses. She was definitely a grown female adult woman and she writes with such clarity about that reality. Sharon Olds does the same, but often, as you said, in a more mysterious manner. All things in life have an underbelly, and what I find in Olds’ verse is the willingness to enter that dance with the shadows and re-emerge not just intact, but having learned in the process. For me, that means she is brave and is blazing a trail. As I said in the poem, she separates what is spirit from what is blind obedience to the law. A rebel after my own heart.

    As far as being ‘discovered’ goes, that might take a book to respond to. I’ve done many things:submitted for publication, and been both accepted and rejected. Did some self-publishing and because I was managing a bookstore had enough contacts to throw a few book-signing parties. But, I have to admit that being discovered here on the Net, by yourself and others, being able to discover all of you in return, has been far more satisfying in many ways. Just as stage-fright inducing, but far more immediate and more open to recipricol response. At heart, I’m here for the discussion and the inspiration and I believe I’ve found the mother-lode, lol.

    Elizabeth

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  23. 1sojournal says:

    Viv, thank you for that. It is wonderful to know that one is an inspiration to even one other human being. Kummings was not just a calalyst to my writing poetry however, he was also a role model for the teaching I sort of stumbled my way into. The verse, from Isaiah that I used for the title of the poem is very real to me on many levels. Dr. Kummings simply told me, in innumerable ways, “Do your own thing.” And them showed up and supported whatever efforts I made in that direction. He listened far more than he spoke, and because he did, I leaned in to hear every word.

    Ah, Ted Hughes. I once wrote a poem about Sylvia Plath as a fine-tuned instrument, played by a youth come late to his lessons. A bit of personal projection? Yes. And no. The crow/blackbird, because of their blackness can be seen as the darkness most of us fear. Kummings used both to ‘invent’ Wallace Stevens. And I related myself to both…a wounded small bird wearing that slash of blood on her sleeve, and a middle-aged woman reflecting back all the colors he had given me to play with. Although I am curious (that means I will go take a look at the Hughes poems you mention), I am far more interested on what you did with that material. Please let me know if and when you post it.

    And about writing about writing as a form of self-indulgence? Selflessness has a sister called Self-righteousness and they are forever holding hands. And there is a belief that a certain level of selfishness can often be a virtue in its own right. Which only means, I’m going to go and get a dish of ice cream now, lol. Thanks for the discussion Viv, and know that you are as much of an inspiration as any I have known.

    Elizabeth

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  24. Carolee says:

    this is a great tribute to all of our teachers and the poets that inspire all of us. this is what it’s about for me. keeping it going.

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  25. 1sojournal says:

    OOOh YES, absolutely. And I love that you do. The prompts have been ongoing adventures, an incredible wealth of inspiration, support and encouragement. I can’t thank you enough for all of it.

    Elizabeth

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  26. systematicweasel says:

    Dropping by to also say that, you’ve got a blog award!

    http://systematicweasel.wordpress.com/2010/07/24/one-lovely-blog-award/

    -Weasel

    Like

  27. 1sojournal says:

    Weasel,

    thank you for the award. I intend to put it up on a sidebar page, as soon as I figure out how to do just that. I haven’t even gotten to the WI prompt yet and the day is nearly half over with. I’m thinking it will have to wait ’til tomorrow.

    Elizabeth

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  28. EKSwitaj says:

    “the crow
    hidden deep in the wings of a blackbird.”

    I love this image, and the idea. It’s the reverse of the usual “pretty” within the “ugly”, though I’ve always been fond of the intelligence and forceful voices of crows.

    Like

  29. 1sojournal says:

    EK, thank you so much. I was really only a beginner back then. Didn’t have a really deep understanding of what I was saying, or trying to do. In later years, I really got into symbolism and was filled with wonder by that line I had penned. In Native American lore, the crow is a Shapeshifter, a powerful shamanic type that must struggle constantly with the arrogance that might, and often does, come of his power. But, the blackbird, I am most familiar with, is a small songbird that is often seen perched in the dried out tall grasses of wetland areas, and one who will even willingly respond, trading notes with a poor human voice offered in imitation. Whew! That’s potent stuff.

    Elizabeth

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  30. neil reid says:

    One of a few complaints: I’ve not time to read all that I might or want. Now, also here. I find your journals good reading, and now, your poems too.

    What you shared of Lucille is near mirror of my experience with WIlliam Stafford (although unfortunately he was already gone before I learned his voice). First heard him in conversation with his friend Robert Bly: a PBS program. Didn’t care what he did, dig ditches, anything, but I knew I wanted more. Doubt I’ll ever even approximate his ability, but like all genuine magic it is good to see what is possible.

    Your generously shared poems here speak well for you and these poetic friends. Thank you Elizabeth for both the poems and the process notes. ~Neil

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  31. I really like the idea of conversations with other poets, and I like the shift in voice each of these pieces represents. I enjoyed the back stories too. It’s always interesting to glimpse that creative process.

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  32. 1sojournal says:

    Neil, oh my, I heard Bly recite his poems live, as well. He was an important lesson on the differences between the written and spoken word. I just couldn’t bend myself around the man’s language. Went to his reading (Dr. Kummings was there, after ‘prompting’ me to attend)and the minute Bly opened his mouth, I was totally enthralled. He made so much sense and was so clear, and wonderfully funny in a giant Minnesota gnome way. I got his autograph and Dr. Kummings asked me to see it. I told him he could look but the book wasn’t leaving my fingers, lol. And much later, I read an interview between him and Bill Moyers, he was talking about doing a poem a day, because Stafford had suggested it, when Bly was having trouble getting back to poetry after writing his prose book. Moyers asked in astonishment, “A poem every day? But,…I mean, they can’t be all, each one, of really high caliber, can they?” Bly grinned and said, “Well, some days you just have to lower your standards.” I loved that quote and used it often on those days when the words seemed to be walking on stilts so tall, I couldn’t even begin to reach for them.

    And I fully agree with you about the reality that each of the poets that have been discussed on these pages has genuine magic. It is good to allow them to open the doors of possibility within us. But, I have to say that what I found in your poem today has more than just a glimmer of that magic. Please understand, I don’t say this lightly. What I saw, heard, and felt in your piece is genuine magic. You are going on my list.

    Thank you for your wonderful comments. Whew! Me and my ‘Friends’ feel really good about that one. lol.

    Elizabeth

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  33. 1sojournal says:

    Hi Francis, that shift in voices actually has a very concrete and realistic explanation. It is very complex and far too lengthy to go into here. It is hinted at, however, on two of my other blog sites, and is concerned with my development of a Personal Mythology before I ever started writing poetry or prose. There you will also find a great deal of discussion on the creative process as well. It figures highly in my core list of personal interests, and was, in fact, the subject of the first course I taught at the University from which I graduated.

    I am all for sharing the creative process because there is so much yet to be learned. Be that in silly or serious collaborative poetry, books, casual discussion, or right here in these comments sections, I’ll take it wherever I find it. It is, besides the actual writing process, one of the most alive experiences I encounter. As someone has already said, I live to write and write to live, my personal sacred circle, if you will.

    Thank you, so much for entering that circle,

    Elizabeth

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  34. Such beautiful poems Elizabeth. Thank you so much.

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  35. 1sojournal says:

    And thank you, Uma. I found your poem both beautiful and haunting. It remains with me still.

    Elizabeth

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  36. twitches says:

    I’ve never put Clifton and Olds together in my mind, but the two work well together in these pieces of yours. Very interesting stuff!

    Like

  37. 1sojournal says:

    Thank you twitches, now wouldn’t that be a hell of a collaboration piece? Boggles the mind a bit, but both of them maintain a sense of humor and that would be a starting point.

    Elizabeth

    Like

  38. Pingback: April PAD Challenge: Day 3 | Soul's Music

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