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Leaving Prague: A Notebook

On stalking ostriches, the hot new generation of Russian poets, and the greatest Czech ever.
"Too many decrepit prizefighters crawl out of retirement only to be beaten back into it. A poet, on the other hand, does not have a face-to-face rival; it’s only too easy to miss the moment you are knocked out."

The city is losing its sparrows. It has been weeks since I last saw one, and that was in New York.

This is not a figment of my imagination: I heard a program on Czech radio during which various experts in the field acknowledged the problem and, after weighing the probable causes, came to a consensus: sparrows are disappearing for some unknown reason. Something similar is happening all over the world to bees, and our best minds are hard at work to save them, since bees have economic value. Sparrows have none; they are just part of  the ambiance.

These sturdy and unassuming birds have been with us since we learned to distinguish ourselves from the apes, with little mutual 
inconvenience. Well, actually the Chinese under Mao tried to exterminate their sparrows for reasons I don’t immediately recall, but it came to nothing. Not native to the New World, sparrows were the true discoverers of America, where they now prosper. Air without their worthless chirping seems void, like distilled water. I’d rather have them back.

I am not a born birdwatcher, and my natural grace is such that if I try to stalk an ostrich it will probably fly away. But whenever I sit down to write something without a clearly-formed intention, by default it turns out to be about birds, and I do notice the birds. There’s no way to avoid noticing pigeons: year after year their attempts to squat on my balcony end up in some ugly massacre, feathers and eggshells floating in a puddle, the drain hopelessly clogged. This tragedy unfolds from the first romantic encounter, usually reported by my cat. Pigeons are nature’s kamikazes; yet somehow they multiply and generally prosper.

Also, there seem to be plenty of falcons, which is not what you would expect in a sizable city. I suspect that they are intentionally cultivated to take care of the pigeon problem. If so, the solution has failed miserably. Most of the time they ignore the pigeons, except when they practically fraternize with them, joining the daily air show over the National Museum. Have the falcons found sparrows to be easier fare?

Sparrows turn out to be one of evolution’s indisputable successes, unlike tigers or lions who seem to be destined to survive only in computer databanks: in the future they will probably make cartoons about cartoon lions. I can also imagine future classical philologists trying to figure out the double entendre in Catullus’s treatment of the male genitalia: what kind of  bird was that mythical passer ?

I have never seen a tiger or a lion in the wild, but life without sparrows is eerie, as if there’s a hole in it.

* * *

The city is still pretty densely populated by Czechs, which may seem far from obvious to its numerous foreign visitors searching for the magical Prague that never was. The most prominent native son of  Prague for the tourist crowd is apparently Franz Kafka, and the local supply of  Kafka T-shirts and marionettes is inexhaustible. This is, of course, part of the city magic: who would betray the secret that the actual Kafka, a German-speaking  Jew, hated Prague, and his posthumous commercial fame is as preposterous as any of  his plots? Unlike Rilke, another Prague native, Kafka never escaped, just kept on dreaming.

Actual Czechs are eminently practical, nothing magical or mystical about them, as befits the people who drink the most beer in the world. Their most curious feature, which they keep to themselves and of  which the tourists know nothing, is a collective sense of  humor. Consider Jára Cimrman, by popular opinion the greatest Czech who ever lived. A few years ago a Czech TV channel asked its audience to name the most beloved native son. Jára Cimrman came first, ahead of Václav Havel, founding president Masaryk, and the Emperor Charles IV. Even the fact that Cimrman was explicitly disqualified in advance did not hurt his chances. This year, when a popular Internet site angled for an alternative to the current President Václav Klaus, Cimrman, disqualified again, came second. An obvious handicap was the fact that he was allegedly last seen alive in 1914.

Jára Cimrman is, of course, a fictitious character, the brainchild of a small group of writers and actors. In the Czech version of Wikipedia he is introduced as “one of the greatest Czech playwrights, poets, musicians, teachers, adventurers, philosophers, inventors” and many other things. Some of his achievements include inventing the Paraguayan puppet show, almost becoming the first man to reach the North Pole (he apparently missed it by seven meters), and conducting a voluminous correspondence with George Bernard Shaw, who never deigned to respond.

Well, that’s funny enough, but the most striking thing about Cimrman is the favor he has found with his people. Having failed to elect him the greatest Czech ever, his countrymen succeeded in giving his name to a tiny asteroid. This year one of the leading radio stations undertook another attempt to immortalize him by launching a campaign called “The People’s Choice, Jára Cimrman.” The idea is to give this hero’s name to one of the mountains in the Russian Altai range. Funds were collected and a group of mountaineers was even dispatched to investigate the rocky candidate. It will probably come to naught since Cimrman is a born loser, no matter how dashing and well-loved. Still, I never heard of a nation mocking itself in such a charming way.

* * *

I am about to leave this city, where I have spent twelve years. There’s no other place on the face of the earth that I have lived in so long. Yet Prague has always remained somewhat impenetrable to me. By now I know the language well enough to follow radio and TV broadcasts without difficulty; I can read the papers, novels, even poetry. I understand the fragments of conversation that reach my ears when I take the bus to work or sit in a café. Many years ago a similar experience in the United States put me on the road to assimilation. But here it doesn’t work. I am forever stuck halfway between the natives and the tourists.

Maybe it has something to do with my age — most of my expatriate colleagues here, those of a more geriatric persuasion, remain stuck in self-imposed isolation, unwilling or unable to reach out. Still, unlike them, I seem to have all the tools to establish contact; and yet I never really did. Perhaps it’s my personal history that prevented me from going native. Decades ago I emigrated from the Soviet Union to the US, and Communism is forever associated in my mind with the cinderblock hell of my childhood. It is unimaginable that something similar ever existed in this fairy tale city, although I know otherwise. There are, of course, neighborhoods in Prague where Communism would be perfectly at home and where tourists are rare guests, unless they go for really cheap hotels and hostels. But the castle and spires conceal the tenements and dissociate themselves from my childhood; they are pieces of the puzzle that never fit. And although I see the faces of the current unreformed Communists on TV almost every day, they appear to be holdovers of the invading horde whose offspring I am myself. The actual natives still remain a bit of a mystery, even though I’ve drunk their beer and talked their talk. It took me far less time to figure out the Americans.

Jára Cimrman is consequently a secret I share with the Czechs, something that an outsider will never have an access to. He will remain with me as proof that I was actually more than a tourist here, although never a proper settler.

In the end some people here will probably miss me, but not many, not too much, and not for long.

* * *

And yet I spent a dozen years on this magic mountain, a fifth of my life so far. What do I have to show for it apart from the stubs of my paychecks?

When I first came here, it had been years since I’d written a poem. I stopped writing poetry without a clear explanation of why it happened. Later on I came up with lots of convincing reasons: one of the best, as I recall, was the turmoil in my erstwhile homeland, Russia. In some way poetry, no matter how private, is always addressed to an audience, and when a level of noise in that audience exceeds a certain value, the exercise becomes pointless. It is possible to imagine an opera star performing to an empty hall but not to a full and noisy one. There’s an old saying: when guns talk, the Muses fall silent. But that’s wrong: Cicero was talking about laws, not Muses. When people talk, especially when they talk feverishly, the Muses definitely shut up.

I remember at the time I could not figure out who it was that Joseph Brodsky was addressing in his late verse — it still seems to me driven largely by inertia. Brodsky’s best poetry is the voice of someone who deliberately positions himself between and above two mighty empires: it’s a running commentary on their perceived decline. When one of  those empires suddenly collapsed, he was left groping. We will never know how he would have regained his internal balance.

When I lost mine, I came to Prague voiceless. Brodsky died soon after and, however shocking, the news seemed fitting: the last universal voice fell silent, leaving the stage in full possession of the noisy nativist crowd.

By now Russia has calmed down, at least in the acoustical sense; it has also become leaner and meaner in an all-too-literal sense. These are still not the good times and I doubt that good times in any acceptable sense will come during my lifetime. Yet amazingly, it has turned out to be a bumper crop time for poetry. It’s not my coevals whom I have in mind, even though some of them are still going strong. It’s the younger generation, those in the thirty- to forty-year-old range, who have suddenly burst into bloom, the children of the perestroika — or one should say the orphans, since their alleged mother went missing long ago.

Poetry is a perishable commodity — Russian imports to the US are presently negligible. Universities keep their self-assigned watch with a predictable lag of ten or fifteen years if not more, and the magazines spend too much energy on personal connections to be really dependable. So I’d better name some names for the record. Yuly Gugolev, Evgenia Lavut, Fedor Svarovsky, Boris Khersonsky, and Denis Novikov, who died too soon — these are just a few of the new star crop. Curiously, many crossed the Atlantic long ago but are still under the radar of academics. Vladimir Gandelsman, one of the best, has for decades now been supporting himself with odd jobs in New York City. Alexander Stessin, another New Yorker, is finishing medical school. Some are better known, like the publishers of Fulcrum, Philip Nikolayev and Katia Kapovich, who both write in English.

I guess we’ll never know the real reason for this embarras de richesse from a country that, in my view, is still stuck in search of a post-Soviet identity. More to the point, Russian humanities in general are in a sorry state, prose writing being nothing special and literary criticism abominable. But the wind blows where it will, and I strongly believe that this new generation of  Russian poets is going to redeem what is redeemable.

* * *

All this transpired while I was biding my time in Prague, going to work, trying to enjoy the beauty of the town whenever the Kafka-obsessed tourist crowd deigned to give me an opening. Over time I discovered that the only practical way for a resident to like the city is to pretend that he is one of the tourists — an opportunity that presented itself every time I had visitors. When you live, say, in Grand Rapids, your typical visitors are likely to be the in-laws, if any. When in Prague, though, the pool becomes much larger. Pretty soon I learned to tell the Charles Bridge from the Municipal House and the knedliki from the spekacki (the latter two, with a generous helping of sauerkraut, basically exhaust the scope of  Bohemian cuisine — this is definitely not a culinary Mecca).

Somehow, even in my Bohemian exile, people found me. With my corporate e-mail address exposed, I kept receiving messages addressed to my former self. Now that I was silent, many beginning poets, considering me inoffensive, like a caged fox, eagerly presented me with their premature fruit. It was not all bad — this was how Philip and Katia discovered me, and we became online friends — and a year or so later Katia knocked at my door.

There must have been a reason why I never learned to feel at home in Prague. It was probably supposed to be a halfway house, a place where you wait for something to happen. One day I found myself writing a poem — about seventeen years after the previous attempt.

Oddly, I feel no urge to explain to myself or anybody else why I picked up the pen — well, keyboard — again. On the other hand, there’s no one asking, myself included. Vanity, craving for public attention — such things are universal, somehow implicit. We don’t ask people why they leave their houses in the morning dressed to kill and neatly groomed — but try wearing your pants backwards and you become an object of curiosity. Actually, I was planning to beat Rimbaud at his own game and quit once more after publishing  just one last book. Now there are two, with a third in the making, and no trace remains of my former resolution.

The interrupted journey continues apace. Yes, there was some secret terror at first: too many decrepit prizefighters crawl out of 
retirement only to be beaten back into it. A poet, on the other hand, does not have a face-to-face rival; it’s only too easy to miss the moment you are knocked out. Somebody will have to tell me when I lose.

* * *

Actually, I do have some thoughts about why I returned to poetry.

I had wondered what it was good for. Orpheus, based on his experience as a zookeeper, might have disagreed with Auden about it making nothing happen. Brodsky was fond of quoting that famous bit of Auden, yet in his Nobel lecture he spoke of the purportedly pacifying qualities of  Dickens, which may be related to the poems by Orpheus that charmed wild beasts: “for someone who has read a lot of Dickens, to shoot his like in the name of some idea is more problematic than for someone who has read no Dickens.” I wonder if  he ever read Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust.

Poetry definitely used to make things happen. Homer, whoever he was, probably sang in the twilight of the Heroic Age, but the tributaries of that river flow from a time when poetic bloodshed directly stimulated the real one. The Vikings used their skalds in a similar way. It wasn’t always a bad thing: there are many examples of other noble passions benefiting from poetry. Still, the noblest of all was courage, and the best display of that was dispatching an enemy to Valhalla.

The Romantic era was, to an extent, a remake of the Heroic Age, minus most of the bloodshed. People raved about poetry. We cannot exactly pinpoint what it was that Lord Byron changed in the world, but it was plenty. Longfellow, traveling abroad, was recognized by people in the street. Teddy Roosevelt knew “Evangeline” by heart.

Poetry is apparently an emotional amplifier, one that is almost neutral, morally. In fact, it flourished in times that few of us would like to see repeated. Still, many of the best poets have tamed it in the manner of Orpheus, and it appears to have lost much of its force together with its menace. Hence Auden’s observation — as well as Brodsky’s halfhearted rebellion.

Is any of this relevant to my current situation? I don’t think so, and in fact I’d be the last person to inspire valor in the troops. When I abandoned poetry, I went on to dabble in various other genres hoping I’d get closer to the truth. Well, I didn’t, of course, the truth remaining as distant as ever. But I have now rediscovered what poetry is good for. It is the only way I know how not to lie — provided, that is, I stay far enough away from the halls of  heroes.

* * *

By now I can find my way through Old Town with my eyes closed, so long as they keep the tourists penned up for a while. The Charles Bridge is being restored, and its usual pedestrian bottleneck is worse than ever. If you’d rather turn right, through the spectacular Old Town Square, you get to the Parizska Street, the finest collection of the Jugendstil (similar to Art Nouveu) houses east of Paris and west of Vienna — this is what they had in mind when they called it Parizska. Until the end of the nineteenth century it was Jozefov, the Jewish ghetto, and though by now Czechs have earned themselves the reputation of a peaceable nation, in the past  Jozefov was the stage for many a pogrom whenever the natives felt irritated for some reason, most notably during the Hussite Wars.

The synagogue is still standing, said to be the oldest in Europe and adjoined by the  Jewish Museum, which lists on its walls the names of every  Jew from Bohemia and Slovakia who perished in the Holocaust. Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state, was reputedly almost brought to tears by finding the names of her lost relatives there. Apparently, she never before suspected that she had been born Jewish, even though a cousin who remained in Czechoslovakia repeatedly urged her to come for a visit and face reality.

In the ancient  Jewish cemetery behind the museum lie the remains of  Rabbi Lev, allegedly the creator of the Golem. The purported likeness of the Golem is on sale nearby in several sizes, but the original, animated or not, probably never existed since the rabbi was of a strictly rationalist bent and such wizardry would have been an offense to his convictions. He lived in the time of the mad Emperor Rudolph, protector of alchemists and seeker of immortality, who alone is largely responsible for Prague’s fake fame.

In reality it was always a city of merchants and artisans, one of the richest commercial centers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — something its beauty attests to, since the Imperial capital moved elsewhere after Rudolph. Between the wars, independent Czechoslovakia was one of Europe’s power engines; but decades of Communist slavery reduced it to mediocrity. When I first came to Prague in 1995, it was still shabby and unkempt as if awakening from a long sleep. Now it sparkles like a jewel in the gorgeous Indian summer.

Decades ago I was walking the streets of Moscow for what I thought was the last time. In my youth I loved Moscow desperately and could not imagine anything more beautiful. Perhaps I simply didn’t know any better. They used to say that Russian writers wither from nostalgia in exile, but I only missed my friends and considered the city one of  them. Moscow isn’t a friend anymore. I go there quite often now; some old friends still survive and there are plenty of new ones. But I have a feeling that my city has been razed and a new one erected in its place, like the fake spic-and-span capital of some oil princedom — which happens to be the truth.

Somehow, it’s Prague that has became my home away from home. It is here that I returned from a journey to the desert where for seventeen years I wandered like the failed prophet in Pushkin’s poem — even though I can’t claim any revelation. But much was left unsaid during those years, and I am trying to make up for them.

* * *

Prague has risen from its Communist ashes, and it really is a  jewel of a city. In a few weeks, following the sparrows and the Jews, I will leave it for Washington DC — a city which is also beautiful in its stately way, though who would have the temerity to call it a  jewel?

Will I ever go back? Curiously, my employer bought me a return ticket with an open date — it’s cheaper than a one-way. I can visit the city again if  I wish. But then I’d have to buy another return ticket to DC, which would start a veritable vicious circle. Never is more like it. Space is huge and time is short, or whatever they used to say in the antiquity.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Alexei Tsvetkov is a Russian poet currently living in Washington DC. His most recent collection of poems is Names of Love (Novoe izdatelstvo, 2007), recipient of the Andrei Bely Prize for poetry.

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Leaving Prague: A Notebook

On stalking ostriches, the hot new generation of Russian poets, and the greatest Czech ever.
  • Alexei Tsvetkov is a Russian poet currently living in Washington DC. His most recent collection of poems is Names of Love (Novoe izdatelstvo, 2007), recipient of the Andrei Bely Prize for poetry.

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