Sharon Olds 1942–
Sharon Olds is known for poetry in which she uses an intensely personal voice to explore themes of domestic violence, sexuality, and family relationships. In much of her verse, she examines her roles as daughter and mother, rendering painfully ambivalent memories of her parents in unsentimental, brutally honest, and often sexually explicit language. In addition to exploring family life, Olds expresses sorrow and outrage for victims of war and political violence. Many critics have noted that her focus on both domestic and public abuse evinces the universal scope of her poetic vision.
Olds was born in San Francisco, California, in 1942. She completed her undergraduate degree at Stanford University in 1964 and received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1972. From 1976 until 1980, Olds was a lecturer-in-residence on poetry at the Theodor Herzl Institute and has subsequently held numerous teaching and lecturing posts at various universities and writing conferences. Olds has also served as the director of the Creative Writing Program at New York University and has been involved in the administration of the NYU workshop program for the physically disabled.
Olds's first book of poetry, Satan Says (1980), is divided into four sections, "Daughter," "Woman," "Mother," and "Journeys," and addresses such subjects as family relationships, domestic abuse, adolescence, sexuality, and motherhood. In the title poem, Olds juxtaposes sexually charged imagery with feelings of outrage toward her parents, particularly her abusive father. In purging herself of violent emotions, however, the narrator unexpectedly moves toward love and reconciliation. In other poems in the collection, Olds celebrates motherhood and the experience of childbirth. In "The Language of the Brag," for example, Olds writes: "Slowly alone in the centre of a circle I have / passed the new person out…. / I have done this thing, / I and other women this exceptional / act with the exceptional heroic body." Olds's second book, The Dead and the Living (1984), is divided into two sections, "Poems for the Dead" and "Poems for the Living." In the first section, Olds's concern with victims and their emotional healing is extended into the
public sphere in poems describing crimes of political persecution and social injustice. These poems center on such characters as a Chinese man about to be executed and a starving Russian girl. In "The Issue," a poem about racial tension in Rhodesia, Olds, after describing a black baby who has been bayoneted, declares: "Don't speak to me about / politics. I've got eyes, man." The second section in The Dead and the Living is less political. Here, Olds returns to more familiar themes, including childhood, love, marriage, and parenthood, with many of the poems addressing Olds's tempestuous relationship with her alcoholic father. The poems in The Gold Cell (1987) continue the family, public, and sexual narratives of Olds's earlier books. In particular, Olds emphasizes the primacy of the body. In the poem "This," for example, Olds writes: "So this is who I am, this body / white as yellowish dough brushed / with dry flour." The Father (1992) is a sequence of fifty-two poems in which Olds describes the slow death of her father from throat cancer. Olds expresses both her compassion for and anger toward her father, using scatological and sexually explicit language to describe the deterioration of his body, which becomes a metaphor for his dismal failings as a parent. The Wellspring (1996) is divided into four sections and traces Olds's life from conception to middle age. Part one focuses on childhood, part two on sexual awakenings, part three on motherhood, and part four on love and mortality.
Critical reaction to Olds's works has been mixed. Although many critics suggest that Olds's predilection for sexual description and shocking subject matter is integral to the emotional catharsis of her narrators and necessary for creating empathy for both victims and their abusers, others contend that her works are self-indulgent, over-dramatic, and exhibit a morbid obsession with violence and a puerile infatuation with profanity. Satan Says, in particular, has been criticized for its explicit language, violent imagery, and strident tone. Critics generally agree, however, that in most of her subsequent books, Olds gained control of her emotional topics, creating a more restrained, though still disturbing, vision of humanity. Commentators have also faulted Olds for what they consider her repetitive and predictable subject matter and her underdeveloped connections between public and private cruelties. Despite these objections, Olds has been widely praised for her compelling narration, inventive use of metaphor, and scrupulous honesty in rendering extremely personal emotions and experiences.
SOURCE: "Seven Poets," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 155-60.
[In the following excerpt, Murray discusses Olds's passionate treatment of such subjects as pain, love, and anger in Satan Says.]
If there were a physics of suffering, some way to graph the pain of doubt, assessing Sharon Olds's impressive debut with Satan Says would be an easier affair. Lacking any exact science of emotions, it should be noted that Olds's harsh and shockingly truthful poems, often wrought in a strident pitch, will attract a sizeable following. The style also may rally detractors, for to an extent Olds makes poetry as if she were lancing boils and enjoying it.
With both her masks and straight faces, Olds considers herself, variously, a temptress, carnivore, daughter, victim, mother, survivor, "a murderer / selecting a weapon." Mainly in the fashion of Sylvia Plath and Ai, which is to say passionately lyrical and driven, she confronts her terrors two-fisted, focusing—perhaps too narrowly—a raw, primal eye on life.
The failure of parents, first love, and disillusionment are perennial favorites among "poetical" topics. But on these accounts, Olds seldom falters, as she combines the serious and the absurd, anger and remorse, apathy and desire, spirit and gut-instinct. Finally, it all breaks into intense expression, most memorably in the clever and powerful...
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SOURCE: "Blunt Instruments," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 239, No. 11, October 13, 1984, pp. 361-63.
[Tillinghast is an American poet whose work exhibits his skill with varied poetic styles including, like Olds, confessional and political poetry. In the following excerpt in which he reviews The Dead and the Living, he compares Olds's poems to Sylvia Plath's and suggests that although Olds's work is flawed, its overall impact is powerful.]
A brutalized childhood is the storm center around which the poems in Sharon Olds's second book, The Dead and the Living …, furiously revolve. The actors in the drama are indelibly drawn….
Olds's attempts, however, to establish political analogies to private brutalization … are not very convincing. For one thing, Sylvia Plath did the same thing earlier, and did it better. In "The Departure," Olds asks her father, "Did you weep like the Shah when you left?" And in "The Victims," she writes:
This becomes a mannerism, representing political thinking only at the most superficial level. Was Nixon ever really thought of as a father, for example, with the instinctual trust and love that implies? Were his crimes ever as intimate and damaging to any of us as child abuse would be? There is, in short, less political insight here than meets the eye.
While reading this book I found myself thinking both of...
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SOURCE: A review of The Dead and the Living, in The Iowa Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1985, pp. 151-61.
[Wright is an American poet whose work has won numerous awards. In the following review of The Dead and the Living, she praises Olds's use of unadorned, concrete description to evoke sympathy and love in scenes of domestic violence and trauma. Wright also lauds the universality of Olds's political poems.]
This second book [The Dead and the Living] by Sharon Olds, the 1983 winner of the Lamont Award, is a powerful follow-up to Satan Says, fulfilling all the expectations that first book raised. Grace Paley has said in an interview that "the act of illumination is political … the act of bringing justice into the world a little bit": by bringing into the light lives that have been (to use Paley's words) "unseen, unknown, in darkness," Olds has both revealed and redeemed the most painful portions of her private and public lives, and celebrated that which has brought her a palpable, full-bodied joy. By confronting her own "darkness" fairly, Olds has affirmed the humanity of those who engendered that darkness, and shown herself, in these days of sensationalized telling-all for lucrative book contracts, to be a poet of affirmation. To draw a parallel with nonfiction, we could say that Olds' poetry about family is more in the spirit of Geoffrey Wolff's The Duke of...
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SOURCE: A review of The Gold Cell, in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. IV, No. 12, September, 1987, pp. 6-7.
[Wakoski is an American poet, essayist, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt from a review of The Gold Cell, she remarks that Olds's poems exhibit a fascination with destruction, suffering, and sexuality.]
Reading The Gold Cell gives some of the same pleasures you get in the doctor's office reading issues of National Geographic. It makes the news of the world interesting with its award-winning photography and glossy pages filled with articles about esoteric aspects of this earth and our daily lives. Olds' language of physical image and metaphor is never illusory (seldom allusive); it is the perfect self-contained language that the New Critics talked about. Her subject-matter is always family, though it is finally "the family of man" which is her theme.
The boy and I face each other.
His feet are huge, in black sneakers
laced with white in a complex pattern like a
set of intentional scars. We are stuck on
opposite sides of the car, a couple of
molecules stuck in a rod of light
rapidly moving through darkness.
("On the Subway")
What is actually most intriguing about Sharon Olds' poetry is not her excellent...
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SOURCE: "Witness and Transformation," in Christianity and Crisis, Vol. 47, No. 19, January, 1988, pp. 453-54.
[In the following excerpt, Moyer discusses Olds's incorporation of personal pain and tragedy into her poetry.]
"We crave getting into each other's pain," Sharon Olds said in a workshop a summer ago, and in her three books, Satan Says, The Dead and the Living, and The Gold Cell, she lays open her own. In a poem about her parents' first meeting, she exhorts them to "Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it." She does, the alcoholism, cruelty, incest. Through all, she is the survivor, not only recording but—with the accuracy of her pictures and the clarity of her understanding—transforming.
In the long title poem of her first collection, Satan Says, she pictures herself as trying to write her way out of a little cedar box:
comes to me in the locked box
and says, I'll get you out. Say
My father is a shit. I say
my father is a shit and Satan
laughs and says It's opening.
Say your mother is a pimp.
My mother is a pimp. Something
opens and breaks when I say that.
Later, the poet hedges:
I love them but
I'm trying to say what...
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SOURCE: "The Belabored Scene, The Subtlest Detail: How Craft Affects Heat in the Poetry of Sharon Olds and Sandra McPherson," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, February, 1992, pp. 1-9.
[Brown-Davidson is an American writer and educator. In the following excerpt, she argues that the poems in The Gold Cell are overdramatic and self-indulgent.]
I am a poet of excess, Definition, "poet of excess": writer who craves the piled-up instead of the pared-down. I recall sitting, as a child, in the darkened classroom as the projector whirred and I waited for the first dead-gray stills of Columbus and his ships to flash onto the screen. I preferred the shock-green effect of a giant floating Gumby, the whirlagig colors of the Mother Goose doll in her bonnet who would speak to us, hectically flushed, from the faded classroom screen. What can I say? As a child I wrote murder mysteries, seminal tales of beau-crazed sisters killing each other off, lurid nature tableaux. This is temperament, I decided, and certainly must be exploited to satisfy that storytelling urge stamped in our bones. But how much does the listener derive from unadulterated drama? I wonder about the emotional price he pays for a constant outpouring of the excessive or extraordinary. I wonder about the reader who attempts to enter a poem and finds himself repelled by its extremes in color or emotion, by its insistence on...
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SOURCE: "The Body as Matter," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4711, July 16, 1993, p. 25.
[In the following review, Wills praises Olds's unsentimental and honest depiction of emotionally laden topics and social taboos in The Father.]
Some years ago, Sharon Olds's father died of throat cancer; this book comprises a sequence of poems charting the death of the body, and exploring the emotions and physical sensations experienced by the daughter in the face of the loss of an unloving father. With an easy lyricism, Olds recounts the gradual achievement of a kind of closeness, based not so much on mutual understanding as on an acceptance of the physical, of the body as matter. In "The Lifting" her father draws his nightshirt up to his neck, forcing her to look at his body when she would have turned away. The gown
rises the way we were promised at death it would rise,
the veils would fall from our eyes, we would know everything.
The reader is similarly discomfited by Olds herself—witness not only to her father's unveiling but also to her own. This intimate confessional poetry grips partly because of its honesty, and partly because of the fear of embarrassment which is a continual danger for both poet and reader, as the father's helpless body and his daughter's feelings about it are gradually laid bare. That this danger is...
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SOURCE: "'Never Having Had You, I Cannot Let You Go': Sharon Olds's Poems of a Father-Daughter Relationship," in The Literary Review, Vol. 37, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 108-18.
[In the following essay, Dillon examines Olds's narrative about the relationship between her and her father running throughout Satan Says, The Dead and the Living, and The Gold Cell.]
In her first three books of poetry—Satan Says (1980), The Dead and the Living (1984), The Gold Cell (1989)—as well as recently published poems not collected into book form, Sharon Olds describes a dysfunctional family misruled by a father whose abuse of power the poems' speaker responds to both as a child and an adult. Rather than one full-length Prelude-like account, Olds offers snapshots, literally dozens of short poems, a few which metaphorically delineate the father damaging the family structure, and others which narrate in specific detail the father's brutal presence. One anthology of literature commonly used in introductory level classes [The Riverside Anthology of Literature, 1991] features three poems highlighting the speaker's relationship with her father. In "The Chute" (included in The Gold Cell) the father selects a child to suspend by the ankles inside the laundry chute, threatening to drop the helpless one: "he loved to hear / passionate screaming in a narrow space." In "The Victims"...
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SOURCE: "Sentencing Eros," in Salmagundi, No. 97, Winter, 1993, pp. 169-81.
[In the following excerpt, Bedient provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of The Father, faulting Olds's self-indulgence but praising the force of some of the poems in the volume.]
Sharon Olds's fourth book of poems, The Father, is easily one of the oddest ever published—even, one of the most outrageous. Consider: a sequence of fifty-one poems on the poet's ghoulish, erotic death-watch of her father, who was hospitalized for cancer, and the grieving aftermath. His dying both steps up and makes safe (unrealizable) her lust to be him and to have him: she is Electra, a babe who will suck from his "primary tumor," a mother who will take his dead body inside her womb, a cannibal who will eat his ashes ("There are people who will swallow whole / cars, piece by piece"—"The Urn"). "Isn't it something," she asks after his death, "the way I can't get over you, this / long deep, unearned desire / you made when you made me" ("Letter to My Father from 40,000 Feet"). The question is self-lacerating; even so, it does not escape being a boast.
In all this, the poet exhibits shame at neither her libidinal nor aesthetic self-indulgences. In the last poem, she has her dead father enumerate, at long last, what he loves about her, including "your womb, it is a heaven to me, / I lie on its soft hills and gaze up...
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SOURCE: "The Forbidden," in Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry, The Ecco Press, 1994, pp. 53-63.
[Glück is an American poet, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, she faults the poems in The Father for being repetitive.]
Sharon Olds is a poet of considerable achievement and a wholesome distaste for that most depressing of strategies, the obligatory elevation of the quotidian via mythic analogy. Olds' technique, her fascination with the extreme physical, the unsayable reality, makes a case for her presence here, and The Father seems, atmospherically, to draw on or suggest taboos it doesn't actually investigate. Olds has an astonishing gift for that part of the act of writing which corresponds to the hunting/gathering phase, or, to put it another way, that part which is generative: many of the poems in The Father read as improvisations around a single word or cluster of words, and their resourcefulness, Olds' sustained scrutiny and fastidious notation of detail, amazes. This method, which characterizes nearly every individual poem in the collection, characterizes the book as well, as though [William Carlos] Williams' dictum regarding things had been adapted to an emotional agenda. If the book fails, as it does for me, it does so in part because the poems grow tedious: Williams' scrutiny was democratic, or perhaps, more properly, an application of the scientific method: it...
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SOURCE: "I Am (Not) This: Erotic Discourse in Bishop, Olds, and Stevens," in The Wallace Stevens Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 234-54.
[Ostriker is an American poet, critic, editor, and educator. In the following excerpt from a comparative essay on Olds, Elizabeth Bishop, and Wallace Stevens, she examines Olds's treatment of the theme of Eros, or erotic love. Ostriker concludes that although there are similarities between Bishop's and Olds's concepts of Eros, Bishop successfully addresses this theme and Olds does not.]
I would like to talk about erotic discourse in poetry in its widest and most archaic sense, beginning with the proposal that what Adrienne Rich today calls "The drive / to connect[,] The dream of a common language" ("Origins and History of Consciousness") has for millennia been understood and experienced as the body and soul's desire, as simultaneously natural and divine, and as source of intense pleasure, intense pain. As in the Song of Songs: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for thy love is better than wine…. Let my beloved come into his garden and taste his pleasant fruits" (1:2; 4:16). Or Sappho: "Mother, I can't finish my weaving. You may blame Aphrodite, soft as she is, she has almost killed me with love for that boy" (frag. 135). Or Catullus, inventing introspection and passionate ambivalence in the same moment: "I hate and love. I don't know how, but I...
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SOURCE: A review of The Wellspring, in Library Journal, Vol. 121, No. 1, January, 1996, p. 104.
[In the following review, Stenstrom favorably assesses The Wellspring.]
In this her fifth collection [The Wellspring], awardwinning Olds surveys her life from conception to middle age with the laserlike attention to emotional and physical detail that is her hallmark. The book's first two sections focus on childhood and adolescence; the self-portrait Olds paints is of a voracious and egocentric child who thirsts for attention and is sensually attuned to all she experiences. Her recollections of her father's casual cruelties (he composed a humiliating tongue twister for his lisping daughter to recite at Sunday breakfast), though chilling, are dispassionately recounted. The second two sections are devoted to parenthood and conjugal love. Olds's po ems about her children throb with love and pathos, and her paeans to an emotionally and physically satisfying marriage are among the book's most rewarding poems. In language that is taut, clear-sighted, and frank, Olds writes powerfully of life's most elemental experiences: birth, love, and death.
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SOURCE: "Death-Watch: Terminal Illness and the Gaze in Sharon Olds's The Father," in Mosaic, Vol. 29, No. 1, March, 1996, pp. 103-21.
[Tanner is the author of Intimate Violence: Reading Rape and Torture in Twentieth-Century Fiction. In the following essay, she applies the concept of the gaze in film and literary theory to Olds's description of her terminally ill father in The Father.]
The publication of Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in 1978 [Screen, Vol. 16, No. 3] initiated a dialogue about the function of the "gaze" that has subsequently moved beyond the boundaries of film theory. Mulvey's discussion of scopophilic viewing in the cinema identified a voyeuristic dynamic in which the erotic identity of the viewing subject is clearly separated from the object (usually a woman) on the screen; the viewer derives pleasure from objectifying the screen persona and subjecting that persona to the power of the controlling gaze. The success of film criticism in denaturalizing the act of looking in the cinema—i.e., exposing the way in which the viewer's gaze may be constructed to enforce hidden assumptions or authorize conclusions that appear "natural"—has led in turn to the need for unveiling the way that the gaze is constructed in other forums and the need for defining the power dynamics that result from that construction.
In relying heavily upon...
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SOURCE: "Private Parts: Sharon Olds's Poems Don't Shy Away from Physicality," in The New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1996, p. 15.
[McDiarmid is an American educator and editor. In the following review of The Wellspring, she discusses Olds's celebration of the body.]
If the body electric that Whitman sang were set in one of Eavan Boland's domestic interiors, and addressed with the affectionate wisdom of Donald Hall, it might become the kind of body Sharon Olds celebrates in The Wellspring—sensual, familiar, beloved. These new poems, her fifth collection, describe the poet's "apprenticeship to the mortal" from her prenatal memories through adult sexuality, from "My First Weeks" through "Celibacy at Twenty" to "True Love."
The bodies she writes about—her mother's, father's, lovers', children's, husband's—exist with all their genetic histories and reproductive organs fully visible to the poet. To visit her mother's college is to remember a time when "Half of me / was deep in her body, dyed egg / with my name on it"; to consider the zipper of her son's outgrown jeans is to remember that he "had waited inside me so many years, his / egg in my side before I was born, / and he sprang fresh in his father that morning." In "The Source" Ms. Olds imagines her father's testicles ("My brothers / and sisters are there, swimming by the cinerous / millions"), as, in "Eggs"...
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SOURCE: "Olds's 'Sex Without Love'," in The Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 3, Spring, 1997, pp. 177-80.
[In the following essay, Sutton analyzes thematic and stylistic contrasts in the poem "Sex Without Love."]
Sharon Olds's frequently anthologized poem "Sex Without Love" gains power through three contrasts: a contrast between surface approval and deeper criticism of "the ones who make love / without love"; a contrast between emotional coldness and physical heat; and a contrast between the poem's solemn, philosophical tone and its reliance on sexually graphic puns.
Many images within the poem appear to suggest that the speaker admires people who partake of sex without love. They are almost immediately described as being "beautiful as dancers," and later are compared with ice-skaters, "the true religious / the purists, the pros," and "great runners." All of these comparisons seem, at first glance, favorable.
Those whose sex is loveless seem to be favorably portrayed in another respect as well: They are described as purer and more profound than ordinary lovers. We are told that they are "the ones who will not / accept a false Messiah, love the / priest instead of the God." Here, ordinary lovers seem at best unenlightened, at worst heretical, while those whose sex does not involve love seem holier, more theologically insightful because their highest urges are not grounded in...
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SOURCE: "The Matter and Spirit of Death," in Suffering and the Remedy of Art, State University of New York Press, 1997, pp. 171-84.
[Schweizer is an educator and critic. In the following essay, he discusses the therapeutic aspects of the poems in The Father, concluding that the volume "is a book in search of a catharsis and clarification of fear and pity."]
Sharon Olds' poetic sequence The Father records her father's death from cancer. Each breath, cough, spit of mucus, and stool is accounted for. The book is obsessed with waiting, with breathing, with bodily functions of the most intimate and ultimate kind, as if the poet wanted to wrest a secret from the slow process of dying, being present to her father's dying so as not to miss the split second when the secret might leap out of the body. The book lingers, at times with an astonishing patience and insistence, particularly over the exact moment of his death, which is the title of one poem. Olds releases her father slowly and with costly tenderness, letting go only after he has begged for it in the manner of Jacob. The book is a work in slow motion, an anticipatory and retrospective grieving, a pity and fear, all in ritual passage reminiscent of the monastic schedule, with the poems bearing such titles as "The Waiting," "The Pulling," "The Lumens," "His Stillness," "The Want," "The Lifting," and so forth.
Above all, the...
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Beaver, Harold. "Snapshots and Artworks." The New York Times Book Review (March 18, 1984): 30.
Positive review of The Dead and the Living in which Beaver discusses the volume's focus on family themes.
Gilbert, Sandra M. "Family Values." Poetry CLXIV, No. 1 (April 1994): 39-53.
Examines the treatment of family relationships in Olds's The Father and in the poetry of Laura Riding, Grace Paley, Marge Piercy, and Carol Muske.
Gregerson, Linda. Review of The Dead and the Living. Poetry CXLV, No. 1 (October 1984): 36-7.
Mixed review of The Dead and the Living in which Gregerson states that Olds's political poetry is exploitive, but that the poet is "an eloquent celebrant… of sexual love."
Hamill, Sam. "Lyric, Miserable Lyric (Or: Whose Dog Are You?)" The American Poetry Review 16, No. 5 (September-October 1987): 31-5.
Discusses the metrical structure of The Gold Cell.
Harris, Peter. Review of The Gold Cell. Virginia Ouarterly Review 64, No. 2 (Spring 1988): 262-76.
Finds the poems in The Gold Cell emotionally gripping, but questions whether the intensity of Olds's...
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