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On Alexei Tsvetkov’s “Notebook”

I subscribe to Poetry, but only for the prose. Yes, I know that sounds like cheating, but I read poetry the way I played football when I was a kid: blundering ahead full force, unaware of most of the rules, pretending a depth of knowledge just to fit in, probably, I will be the first to admit, the worst way in the world to read poetry. But the essays get me to hear the voice of poets I would otherwise not know, such as Alexei Tsvetkov. And now I’m a fan.

Tsvetkov’s featured in the Feb. 2008 issue, a quote from his “Leaving Prague: A Notebook” emblazoned on the back cover: “Too many decrepit prizefighters crawl out of retirement only to be beaten back into it. A poet, in the other hand, does not have a face-to-face rival; it’s only too easy to miss the moment you are knocked out.” Drawn in–no, more like dragged in after being mugged–by these lines, I read “Leaving Prague” and felt nearly every word.

The essay is steeped in loss: of sparrows (disappearing at an alarming rate right up there with the bees, but nobody seems to care), of Czech identity (Prague given over to the likes of Franz Kafka t-shirted tourists), of a place of being and belonging, of writing (Tsvetkov stepped away from writing poetry for seventeen years). It is also steeped in gain: new friends draw him out, new poems come to him (he teases that he was prepared to write one more volume and retire ala Rimbaud, but three volumes later, he’s still going strong), he has even found some kind words for Prague, though he may never return. This was poetry I have been needing for a while now.

For the past few months, I’ve been transitioning into a new teaching position, one that requires more than just a little compassion and patience. I’ve gone from an office to a table and a laptop. In the past few months, I’ve been writing less and less. Those things that define me as writer and teacher don’t support my footing like they used to and I wobble much more than stand straight. I fear that burnout looms over the horizon, that I’ve missed the moment I’ve been knocked out. But then comes this essay, this Tsvetkov poet, and things settle a bit. Life is life, place is place, and words always have a reason for being. So I’ll dust off my keyboard and dive in once more.