‘At the frayed edges of existence’… Sascha Akhtar on Cut the Black Rabbit by Benjamin Cusden

9781916344716As night falls, sympathy’s a starving bird, empathy/an unknown world. Fear is a hyena’s hunting pack.  Pg.18

We are fortunate to have the work of Cusden in our midst. The inner experience of being devoid of shelter, of a centre, of a system of nourishment, sustenance and protection is what we have with Cut The Black Rabbit.

We are privy to a document that tunes us into the effect of externalities on our existence and their absences. How theses absences may affect the individual, how each moment, each event of ‘not-having,’ may correlate to a psychological response is a very personal, subjective experience.

Poetry then is the perfect language for this, but how many individuals struggling for their survival can find that strength to document their process thus? Or are able to access a language of symbology and nuance to describe the suffering, the isness of being a human who has had the bottom fall out. This is why I say, we are fortunate to have the work of Benjamin Cusden in our midst.

Cusden maps the territories he moves through assiduously. As if by doing so he can tether himself to the concrete even through the inner disorientation, defragmentation and dissolution. Signs are documented, dialogue —cities, and motorways.

In this decentred state all things are reversed. Nature is not a friend. The poet has reverence for Nature, and in fact, appears to turn to the earth, fully —he accepts it, he absorbs it.

The Sun, The Moon, the circle of stars… Pg. 12

Indeed, this may well be how he managed to get through:

Every day has ritual… Pg.13

but when you are utterly exposed the sun is satiated…fat, unwelcome,/rips the sky —/ Pg. 23

And in the poem Cold, it is the cold that has been made homeless and now it squats in the poet. The poet has lost ‘home,’ only to become one:

I am the home of the cold. Pg. 15

There is a detachment, a distance between the experience and the experiencer in Cusden’s poems.  In Hyenas we witness a homeless man being beaten unconscious. The use of the symbology of the hyena seems wise and almost empathetic. The horror of what occurs is left to the imagination, the reader only receives the details form a police-style report.

No emotion, no feeling of what the individual suffers is prevalent. Just the display of the ‘hyena’ —ready to tear in with violence into the body of another with no rational thought. Indeed, Cusden’s work invites us to contemplate such things. What does stop the human from becoming ‘animal’? What keeps us ‘civilized’? Certainly not the privilege of a roof over one’s head as the ‘hyenas’

…tanked up bravado, they prowl for prey;/swagger-full of testosterone, hair trigger tempers… Pg. 19

in the poem illustrate and by the same token having no shelter can yet not render us ‘animal,’ and this is what Cusden’s poems talk of —how to remain a ‘human,’ when you’re put out to the wolves —even when you are…paid in pigs eyes wrapped in rags;/  Pg. 11 and constantly reminded that in the eyes of others you are sub-human:

I wanted a snout or at least an ear/but such treats are reserved for dogs Pg. 11

In part iii Sofa Surfing of the poem I Am Homeless Mornings, too there is that sense of detachment, within the framework of a truly horrific experience, again at the hands of a ‘hyena’-like individual.

Cusden reveals the world to us of the dispossessed. In his experience, those who may wish to show kindness are almost always unable to see it through.

Your conscience clear,/at least you saw me sitting here/at least you recognized my fright/and didn’t pass… Pg. 14

In Cut The Black Rabbit, the poet and the poetry are one —the flesh and bones of the poet fused with the poetry. …red trails seep through/congealed/under skin… Pg. 23

The earth, the animals and indeed, their carcasses all come together in a kind of unity. The poetry is the viscera of the experience.

I’m naked to the world whether clothed/or not, deskinned to flaunt my inner workings  Pg. 16

The animals are always with him —fox, mule, hyena, starling, goose, rabbit, badger, in any form. Prepping roadkill isn’t easy Pg. 24 When being forced to eat them too, they are supporting him and he becomes one with them. In the Transcience we see shape-shifting as a means to transcend the parameters of one’s existence…feet become claws… Pg. 13

In Sufi mystical writings, the dervish trope wandering the earth, with no possessions is a common one. The dervish or majnun (lover) is one with everything. A sense of this is prevalent in Cusden’s work— he and his words become one for he has nothing else but these words in every moment — his record, his observations, his way to make sense of being up close and personal with concrete, dirt, blood (often of others), hunger— the tropes of survival. This is his account of survival. In the last poem ‘This,’ his life and the poem overtly become one. His existence was a ‘poem of certainty,’ which then turned uncertain:

This…was once a poem of certainty…Now this poem is uncertain

until this poem hasn’t been written at all… Pg. 32

The poet undoes his own work with this sentence, because the truth is, his poems could have not been written at all just as he may not have lived to share them. When you are out on the streets matters of life and death hang dangerously close, moment to moment. This much is certain from the poems and what is  also true is that even by reading them, we may never fully grasp what he experienced, but through his words perhaps we can edge closer to an empathetic understanding of what the human experience can be at the frayed edges of existence.

Yes, Benjamin Cusden lived and so, his poems. This is why I say, we are most fortunate.

Sascha Akhtar 

What a line up for our next event!

We have a fabulous line up for our next event, recognising the New York influence on Arrival at Elsewhere, including extracts from the book and readers’ own poems. Please join us on Zoom Saturday 10th April 8pm in the UK, 3pm in New York – and sign up in advance at https://arrival-elsewhere-ny.eventbrite.com.

fletcherCatherine Fletcher is a Virginia-based writer. Recent work has appeared in journals such as Hopkins Review, Entropy, New Contrast, and Burning House Press, among others. She served for a decade as Director of Poetry Programs at the New York-based organization, City Lore, specializing in the grassroots poetry of immigrant communities. She also was Managing Director of the Los Angeles-based Ghost Road Company and served on the organizing committee of the Edge of the World Theater Festival, which highlighted the work of Los Angeles’ small theatres. http://cafletcher.blogspot.com/

foyJohn Foy’s third book of poems, No One Leaves the World Unhurt, won the 2020 Donald Justice Poetry Prize and was published early 2021 by Autumn House Press. His second book, Night Vision, won the New Criterion Poetry Prize and was published by St. Augustine’s Press in 2016. It was also a finalist for the 2018 Poets’ Prize. He lives and works in New York. https://johnffoy.net/

hadasRachel Hadas is the author of many books of poetry, essays, and translations. Recent poetry collections include The Golden Road (2012), Questions in the Vestibule (2016), and Poems for Camilla (2018). Love and Dread is forthcoming in the fall of 2020, and a prose collection, Piece by Piece, in 2021. Rachel lives in New York City and Vermont, where she hopes to stay for the foreseeable future. Since 2013, she and her husband Shalom Gorewitz have been marrying poetry and video: www.rachelandshalomshow.com

hardyMyronn Hardy is the author of, most recently, Radioactive Starlings, published by Princeton University Press (2017). His poems have appeared in journals such as the New York Times Magazine, jubilat, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. http://www.myronnhardy.com/

 

katzDavid M. Katz is the author of four books of poetry: In Praise of Manhattan, Stanzas on Oz, and Claims of Home (all published by Dos Madres Press), and The Warrior in the Forest (House of Keys Press). Poems of his have appeared in PN Review, Poetry, The New Criterion, and elsewhere. He lives in New York City. davidmkatzpoet.com

A Poem of the Pandemic, David M. Katz

Blog post written by David M. Katz, reproduced with permission. David will be one of five readers on Zoom, Saturday 10th April (8PM UK, 3PM New York) please do join us & sign up in advance on Eventbrite – Arrival at Elsewhere – New York Zoom Launch.

You might well say that Carl Griffin, a poet and editor from Wales, has a quixotic side to him. On March 25, 2020, almost a year ago now, I received an email from Carl offering me and many other poets the chance to take part in what seemed a deliriously ambitious project: to create a single poem consisting “of many voices and styles that will hopefully all fit together” about the pandemic.

“I’m trying to form a book-length poem of fragments about the coronavirus, with as many voices (writers) as possible,” he wrote then. 

With the benefit of a year’s hindsight, I think his elevator speech about the project has turned out to be a bit more than a little prophetic. “In case this ends up being like the plague or the fire of London (by which I mean an infamous historical event), I think it would be great to have the best writers’ poetic perspective on it, while it is happening,” he added.

In fact, Griffin’s outlook had been cautious.  While the 1666 Great Fire of London was a tragic catastrophe, levelling the medieval center of the city and claiming a small but still undetermined number of lives, it was a benchmark that was rapidly and exponentially exceeded by the Covid-19 global pandemic. As of today, 117 million cases of the coronavirus and close to 3 million deaths have been recorded globally, including about 29 million cases and 524,000 deaths in the United States. 

Within these numbers and beyond them, of course, there are myriad individual experiences. Many cases have proved widely available information wrong: mask-wearing people who have been at home throughout the plague still come down with it; young people thought early on in the pandemic to be relatively immune to it have gotten terribly sick and died; elderly folks have come off ventilators to cheering hospital staffs and lived to tell the tale. 

While most of us have yearned for the physical presence of family and friends, others have gathered with others online more than they normally would and discovered the benefits of nature and solitude. The emotions of front-line workers and the apartment dwellers leaning out their windows to cheer and chant for them are different–and the emotions within each of those groups are different as well.

Wisely, Griffin has assembled a multi-voiced long poem that focuses acutely on individual perception and experience. The result is Arrival at Elsewhere, an amalgam of the verse of 97 English-language poets that amazingly, hangs together, flows smoothly from beginning to end, and provides a group portrait of how a variety of people were experiencing the first three or four months of the plague.  (Proceeds from sales of the book support the U.K.’s National Health Service.)

While the volume is packed with strong, uniquely voiced poetry, it’s not an anthology. Instead, it benefits from being read straight through as a single poem. The abundance of sharply drawn imagery and the absence of impeding rhetoric yields a cinematic sweep to the whole. Griffin refers to himself as a “curator,” but I think he does himself a disservice there. 

A curator solicits and selects discrete works of art for an exhibition. But here, this Swansea-based poet has gotten his editorial hands dirty, plunging them into a mass of verse he solicited, cutting out and juxtaposing fragments that appealed to him, and–perhaps most importantly–inventing a form that could make the whole thing fit together. 

It’s a fascinating method for editors and poets primed to embark on similarly ambitious crowd-sourced efforts. In his introduction, Griffin writes: 

“When I cut the best fragments and began to spread them out on my dining table, the table quickly filled, and I still had loads of fragments to make room for. I held on to a piece of advice one of the contributing poets, John Sewell, had sent to me a few weeks before: ‘In my experience, what starts to look utterly impossible to pull together suddenly finds a way through which seems, in retrospect, inevitable.’ I repeated that mantra to myself, and read every fragment over and over, slotting them into this section, that section, until a few patterns emerged that I could use as my starting point. I can also confirm the last line of John Sewell’s advice, which read: ‘That is such a beautiful moment.’”

But how to connect beautiful moment to beautiful moment, fragment to fragment, so that the verse flows powerfully and seamlessly through an entire 92-page book, not only to keep the reader engaged, but to achieve the dimensions of a coherent long poem?

Griffin, rather than trying to hatch a structure intellectually prior to the poem, seems to move by feeling and association through a preset form of his own choosing. “You will see straight away the pattern the poem uses, with two groups of 9 lines (2-2-2-2-1) per page, with the occasional dream-sequence page in-between which has 8 couplets,” he wrote me in an email.

He has chosen his pattern extremely well. With its widely varying line lengths, the form allows for movement among multiple moods and tones and expressions, speeding up when the poem needs to and slowing down to render deeper interludes. The poem seldom lags, while the fixed pattern provides the sense of a single, coherent work. 

The effect is faintly reminiscent of “The Waste Land,” especially if you recall that Eliot’s much longer original version had a working title of “He Do the Police in Different Voices” before the poem came under the deft hand of Ezra Pound. Eliot’s original title suggests an intention similar to Griffin’s assemblage of voices, though I’ve no intention of comparing Arrival at Elsewhere, a fine book in its own right, with one of the greatest long poems ever written.

That said, this poem of the pandemic has a certain Eliotic mood hanging like a London fog over much of it. “Unreal city,” Eliot wrote, a perfect description of the perception of the situation by many urban dwellers in the early days of Covid. Suggesting what has come to be seen as a new sense of reality, Griffin focuses on a time of  deprivation: “What a letting go this Lent has been,” one of his poets writes. 

But the semi-Biblical images of isolated figures we first see in the poem–a pregnant woman in “high-heeled/silver sandals,” a wandering deer who may have died, “a homeless man/in The Gap” whose smile is “incandescent as a late-century Christ”–resound with a greater and wider deprivation, the loss of contact with other people. “Beautiful world,” one of the poets plangently writes, “I cannot touch you enough.”

As it proceeds, the poem explores with acute precision the changes in perception fostered by the plague. In those early months, Yeats’s refrain from “Easter 1916” kept running through my brain: “All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.” In 2020, a poet expresses it this way:

The faults are in my perception:

I see the area about me, wild garlic 

and ground elder, the climbing roses,

limestone cliffs, but each part seems apart,

as if it is alone. I cannot agree

with how the consonants go with the vowels,

how plants may feel the pain

of outcrop, how the river’s fullness

qualifies the trailing bough of ash

how beech buds hold the pattern 

of the water’s shape

I’ve seen you many times

but not like this.

Although the change is painful, it’s not all for ill. As with the first glimpses of early spring, a little bit of a pleasure long deprived is all the more delicious. Reading the lines “peregrine falcons taking flight//from the tower of Riverside Church,” I experienced a frisson of recognition, since I live nearby. A few lines on, I smiled with recognition of the familiar cadences of my dear friend and neighbor, the poet John Foy:

Three unempowered men–

no jobs, no homes–

sit outside Tom’s Pizzeria

closed now and up for sale.

How are you, man?

When this is over,

we’re gonna go get a drink

at The Craftsman.

I’ll buy the first round.

Now that there are signs that such rounds of drinks together will be possible someday soon, Arrival at Elsewhere is a resonant reminder of what it was like when such hopes were disorientingly hard to come by. 

More than that, it’s a monument to what poets can achieve during times of crisis. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” Eliot wrote near the end of “The Wasteland.” Besides shoring up our fragments, Carl Griffin has magically rendered them as part of a whole that looks forward to less ruinous times. 

I’ll end with my contribution, written when the fevers seemed a palpable threat at our doorsteps. I was inspired by “An Inspector Calls,” J.B. Priestley’s play about the crumbling of a prosperous British family in 1912. I call the piece “The Great Displacement.”

In the evenings, a kind of dread set in.

Was it possible that the paradigm

for their entire life together would change,

the gyroscope drop to a stop

on the green felt table

that had been the centre of their lives,

cigar smoke rising above his white collar?

That was a thing he could now contemplate,

as the brandy thickened in his forehead,

a thought he could only entertain 

when the fate of the human race was at stake,

and his little life wasn’t all there was

to be lost. She had started to sicken,

the ivory slope of her nose reddened

at the sides. The boy too, had a leaden cough.

Was this their great displacement?

katz
David M. Katz

Arrival at Elsewhere – Cheltenham Poetry Festival

awritersfountain

I was lucky enough to be at this Reading, hosted by Cheltenham Poetry Festival at the beginning of March (4th). It was incredibly moving and the whole time I was thinking what a powerhouse of a project it was, what an undertaking. Although, in the Q&A Carl Griffin (curator) brushed it off as not being overly complicated. Many of us feel we wouldn’t have known where to begin. He started with a kitchen table and some cut up pieces. Carl looked for pattern and he was certainly able to orchestrate that. It was interesting to hear about the process of the book coming together from the initial idea to the finished product. I am still amazed at the seaming of 100 voices into one book length poem.

Carl Griffin talks more about the process here.

This book is more than a chronical of our times.

Money raised from…

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The story behind Cut the Black Rabbit by Benjamin Cusden

Ben PhotoCan you tell me something about the story behind Cut the Black Rabbit?
I had a fabulous career in television as an editor – cutting TV programmes together to tight deadlines. I worked hard for twenty years and over time the stress started to take its toll. By the end I was drinking heavily and not sleeping for months on end. Finally my body and mind literally collapsed and after a very prolonged illness and various financial issues I found myself being evicted from my house in Cornwall where I’d taken refuge from London.

Continue reading “The story behind Cut the Black Rabbit by Benjamin Cusden”

Arrival at Elsewhere – film poem and Cheltenham reading

Check out our Arrival at Elsewhere film poem* and sign up for the 4th March Cheltenham poetry festival reading below.

* Compiled using videos from pexels.com

Delighted that Cheltenham poetry festival are hosting a reading from Arrival at Elsewhere – Thursday 4th March 8pm. Readers include Abegail Morley, George Szirtes, John Glenday, Julian Stannard and Graham Clifford..

Book your ticket here.

ArrivalElsewhereCheltenham

See Cheltenam Poetry Festival for other readings, workshops & open mic sessions.

Creativity in Lockdown – poets and editors advice during these uncertain times

The Poetry Shed

How do we find our muse in these dark times? For some, I know that lockdown has deadened their creativity which is having an impact on their wellbeing, as they are also coping with isolation from friends and family. For those home schooling there’s no head space or time to write, and those working from home need a break from their laptops, they need to be doing back exercises, not crouching over editing.

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Over the next few months, with the help of various poets and editors, I’ll be posting articles to help you with your writing and wellbeing, to take away the loneliness and provide inspiration or just a kind, understanding word. The poets/editors who are supporting me in this project are: Deborah Alma, Robin Houghton, Sarah Leavesley, Jane Lovell, Cheryl Moskowitz, Helena Nelson, Caleb Parkin, Sarah Salway, Claire Walker.

I will also be having dialogues with artists to discuss…

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Of Hearts – available to pre-order now

Karen Dennison

OfHeartsMy pamphlet, Of Hearts, is available to pre-order at Broken Sleep Books – Of Hearts where you can also read two of the poems, At Point Nemo and Winter’s story.

“Karen Dennison’s Of Hearts opens with a poem about Point Nemo, the ‘spacecraft graveyard’ and furthest place from land in the ocean. The poem sets the tone for a pamphlet which explores our tiny place in a vast, overwhelming universe. It is full of crisp, lucent, technically agile and clever poems of cosmic longing. Of Hearts is a deeply enjoyable pamphlet from a poet with her eyes pressed to a telescope, searching until ‘the stars switch off’.

Published by Broken Sleep Books, Michael Marks Publishing Award Winners 2020

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“A document of 2020 with a voice of its own, each small word precious in its articulation” by Sarah Westcott

SarahWescott_02_byMatthewPull copy 2Sarah Westcott‘s first collection Slant Light was published by Pavillion Poetry, an imprint of Liverpool University Press, in 2016. A poem from the book was highly commended in the 2017 Forward Prizes. Her debut pamphlet Inklings (Flipped Eye) was a Poetry Book Society pamphlet choice in 2013. Her second collection Bloom is due with Pavillion Poetry in April 2021. Sarah is one of 97 poets whose lines are featured in Arrival at Elsewhere, a book length long poem response to the pandemic, curated by Carl Griffin.

Sarah Westcott on Arrival at Elsewhere

When Carl first got in touch requesting fragments written during the pandemic, we were deep in the strange spell of the first lockdown. Our children were untethered from school, blinking in an unsettling freedom. April was opening in an exquisite, almost mad way with an inevitability and momentum unmatched by any other season. The immediate, greening world made me think of Jean Sprackland’s ‘machine’ of spring with all its ‘levers thrown to max’. Something in the spirit of openness in Carl’s invitation appealed, the sense of finding something not yet written.

IMG_6654Years before, my mother had given me a small, hand-made notebook with a pigeon on the front. It lay, quietly, in a drawer. One evening, feeling a desperate need to set something, anything, down on paper, I took the notebook out and began:

I write to keep near
As close as a bird in your head
As close as a child in your arms

Each day the number theatre was played out. Death hung at the edges of things, a pink pall in grained evening skies. Pear blossom frothed and fell, elderflowers glowed like saucers of cream when I woke at 3am, unease rising. I felt deeply, alertly alive. Our neighbour’s wife, Yvonne, died with the virus in her body. The street came out and clapped as her husband was driven to the funeral. My partner’s great aunts died, in New York, where they buried the dead in mass graves. The walnut tree put out soft floppy leaves. The sun’s warmth was beneficent, excessive. The first swifts arrived. The road was quiet, then quieter.

The street came out of our houses today and stood in silence then clapped as the widow was helped into a car and driven away.

IMG_6656I knew how privileged we were with a garden, and good health, paid work. Yet, some days I felt a part of me going under. In the evenings, once nobody wanted anything more, I would look out of the window, be still. I would open my pigeon notebook and write, just ten minutes, write for the pleasure and joy of writing, looking for something and nothing at all with my pen. Fragments, the tangible, insistent present. Me, in there, my small blue flame. Each entry long or short as I liked, each day a different pen, a different woman. The book filled up and I collected the fragments without evaluation. I knew they would build into something I could send to Carl, that they were a small articulation of being alive.

To write without pressure or expectation is where we can encounter a deeper more playful self, and this is where the work with breath in it, or light might emerge. When I think back to that writing time there was something of the joy of being a teenager again, a preoccupation with the self and its movement through an uncertain, dynamic world.

I would like to see a cockchafer

IMG_6673My four-year-old son became fascinated by a wooden cross in the grounds of the local church. Some evenings, we would walk up the road to ‘see the cross’, the grass below it thick with clover and dog violets. I started to pick wild flowers and take them home, to study and to write ‘through’ their alterity. I was careful to only take one or two, as much as I needed. I watched them wilt and fade over time. I thought of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s idea that plants can be ‘eloquent in their physical responses and behaviours’. Plants, she writes in Braiding Sweetgrass,’ answer questions by the way they live, by their responses to change.’

There was hope in that engagement with each flower, attention well ‘spent’ on its intricacies and mysteries. Arrival at Elsewhere is full of plants and flowers and I find pleasure in the sense other poets were drawing comfort and some kind of meaning from their presence too.

I remember the wooden cross in the church grounds with a crown of barbed wire. We approach it across wet grass – the shape is atavistic – four points like a body – the raised head and still legs. I think my son cannot tell between real cross and apocryphal. I think we all enjoy entering these uncertainties.

*

Under the cross are dog violets in various stages of growth. I take three to study at home. I put my glasses on, there is a pale, striped opening in the middle lower petal, the stripes like veins in the back of the throat, drawn by the cell’s inheritance, leading in to the back of the slipper, the heel, the spur which when pinched is surprisingly firm.

Our dog began to die. I painted a bunch of sunflowers, with my daughter drawing too. We sketched flowers, bodies, trees and graves. Death moved in and out of the corners of our lives. There was a constancy and a guilt. A loved one started radiotherapy. I followed the progress of Michael Rosen on Twitter, I watched Grayson Perry and Chris Whitty, I watched the actors behind their podiums, in front of the cameras. I thought of my sister working on hospital wards and the tens of thousands of others knitting our fragile society together and I felt remote and close and privileged and afraid.

… How dependent we are on the light, the chains. The air we inspire is nothing more than one person away …

When I sent my fragments off to Carl, I was interested in the mass of them and how many there were. They felt like small samples or missives from a receding past but they were also unwieldy, indulgent. I felt no sense of ownership and yet they were mine; they had come from me. I liked the sense of giving my lines over to another mind, for them to be cut and stitched into a larger flow of words and perceptions and feelings. Arrival at Elsewhere is a complete poem, a shifting, lyrical voice. Its lines and voices press against these edges of freedom and constraint. The whole poem pulses with a kind of bound, shifting energy that I think we all know in our bodies. Like my notebook, it is a document of 2020 with a voice of its own, each small word precious in its articulation.

Arrival at Elsewhere is available to buy here in aid of NHS Charities Together.

The following extract features lines from Sarah Westcott, Rachel Hadas, Richie McCaffery, Gerard Smyth & Julian Turner –

I remember the wooden cross
in the church grounds with a crown

of barbed wire. We approach it
across wet grass – the shape is atavistic,

four points like a body,
the raised head and quiet legs, still.

It’s a long, slow wrinkling we walk on.

I think my son cannot tell between
real cross and apocryphal –

I still enter these uncertainties.
The longer the trail behind,

the less it stays behind. It curves –
not social distancing, not that

awkward choreography of swerve,
no, but as if a tuck is taken in fabric,

a sudden loop, a little lateral leap.

Inside the church, mass is cancelled,
one contagion yielding to another.

Recent looks far away
and long ago. Far away turns

into here, now, so you leap back.
Distant conversations surface.

If memories can live in an element
that lets them dive and sink,

these rise like swimmers.

Under the cross are dog violets
in various stages of growth.

I once took three to study
at home. Indoors, with my glasses on,

I noted the pale opening
in the middle lower petal, the stripes

like retinal veins. An organ
sits idle in its moorings,

its music dormant in the pipes.