A Critical Apercu of Steffen Horstmann’s "Ujjain"

From pre-Islamic Arabia the ghazal travelled to Persia and from there to the Indian subcontinent and Asia and finally, in the 19th century, to Europe and America through translations. Goethe translated ghazals and his collection West Eastern Diwan (1819) inspired other German poets such as Friedrich Ruckert and August Graf von Platen, who wrote ghazals that adhered to the Persian form. The latter wrote Ghaselen (1821) and Neue Ghaselen (1823). Early in the 20th century British poets began to write ghazals, including Thomas Hardy.

Agha Shahid Ali popularized and promoted this form in America in the 1990’s. After the experimental ghazals of James Clarence, James Elroy Flecker, Adrienne Rich, and Phyllis Web, American poets such as John Hollander, W.S. Merwin and Elise Paschen wrote ghazals that complied with the traditional rules of the form. Some other important names are Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Maxine Kumin, Robert Pinsky, Spencer Reece, and Eleanor Wilner.

Steffen Horstmann is an important name in the history of American ghazal writers. The title of his collection of ghazals is very appropriate, as the Mahakaleshwar Temple is located in Ujjain. The Mahakala, one of the manifestations of Lord Shiva, represents the whole of creation culminating in transcendence. Shiva, the destroyer, has always been associated with cremation grounds and with death. The first and third sections of the book present “pyres around us”, “ghosts wandering in a haze”, “skulls are scattered across stretches of rippling water”. There is death and destruction in almost each ghazal of these two sections. This Shiva principle awakens an understanding of the real nature of existence.

Apart from the book’s association with Lord Shiva, there are also echoes of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”. Section five of Eliot’s poem, entitled “What the Thunder Said”, describes a journey to the Chapel Perilous. The quester has a vision of religious and cultural capitals falling – “Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London / Unreal.” This falling of towers is borrowed from the Grail myth. While approaching the Chapel Perilous, the quester encounters terrors and apparitions of which the collapse of cities is one. It is a kind of entry into the regions of the dead so that the initiate may obtain knowledge. This descent is a kind of ascent. The dreamlike imagery in Ujjain, as well as the book’s depictions of a ravaged past, reflect Eliot’s influence; though the main source of its theme of a lost and vanished world comes from the pre-Islamic Arabic poetry known as “ruin poetry”.  It began with the 6th century poet king Imru’ al-Qais, the last king of the kingdom of Kindah. He is remembered as the father of Arabic poetry. This poetry is known as “wuquf ‘ala al–atlal” or “stopping by the ruins”. This standing and stopping is a moment of stillness and meditation, outside of time. The landscape represents loss and longing coming back as a flash of lightning, as memory. Tarafa, a contemporary of Imru’ al-Qais, wrote about ruins as apparitions. By the Islamic age of the Abbasid period (8th to 12th centuries), this trope of poetry of ruins had reached its golden age.

While the Arabic poets used ruins to symbolize lost loves and longing, Steffen Horstmann uses ruins to reflect on wars and a past that now lives as a mere trace of “atlal” – the classical Arabic poetry. He gives a new context to the “atlal” trope. Instead of remembering a lost beloved amidst the ruins, the poet focuses on a global past, a loss without redemption. It is only in three poems that a personal past is remembered. One of these poems is entitled “Once”. Here there are no ghosts, only memories:


This defunct hotel, you and I were here once…
And danced beneath a turning chandelier once.

…Lightning flashed in a charcoal sky,
Clouds in which I saw your face appear once.


The second poem about personal memories is “Rain”:


Those nights it stitched the air in our sleep.
Bodies entwined, mornings we would wake to rain.


 “Dream Ghazal” also presents this personal past–


“Though you are gone, nightly the memory
of you reaches me in sleep”.


In the remainder of the book, the poet’s gaze, in his wanderings, goes back to the past of the whole human race. Behind him he looks at “vistas being erased” and like Eliot, he hears “a sound like wind reaping dust” or “wind / rising in waves on an arid shore”(‘The Dark’). In another poem ‘[Falling boulders storm a gorge] ‘there are howling winds “in fields where knights / in the Cimbrian campaign fell”. The poet has a vision of Mayan temples where civilization died in A.D. 900 (‘[As Vega’s phosphorescent core collapses]’), and in ‘The Ascensions’ there are “ruins of Pueblos” and “specters of Pharaohs”. We also get glimpses here of:


Persian warships choke the Dardanelles, when above
Spartan citadels clouds of flaming arrows rise.

…In the starlit ruins of a Byzantine basilica
Luminous madonnas from shattered frescoes rise.


The reader is also shown glimpses of the lost and vanished world of the gods of “Masai”, the pastoral people from Tanzania and Kenya, the shrines of the Samurai from Japan, temples of Veii, ruins of Troy, ancient battles between Spartans and Myrmidons in Ithaca that left the fields “strewn with roses”, raised swords of Alexander’s brigades, ruins of Capri and Catacombs of Thebes.

Most of the ravages are the results of wars. Here Horstmann follows the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. While the Arabic poets in the past used ruins to ponder on lost loves, the modern poets use them to reflect on war. This leaves the past as a mere trace. This trope is now used in novels and films as well. Iraqi novelist Sinan Antoon uses the Atlal trope to depict the violence inflicted on Iraq, especially on Baghdad. Thus from the early Bedouin poets the ‘ruin wanderer’ trope has evolved. Steffen Horstmann has his own way to make the ruins of the past speak. In his poem ‘[Live, Let blood beat wings in the wrist today]’ the poet asks:


Does peace beckon our broken cities?
Or will each hand bloom into a fist today?


Aside from wars, famines and earthquakes are other catalysts causing destruction throughout the world, in ‘[Live, Let blood beat wings in the wrist today]’, the poet depicts “the sunken face of a famished child” and in ‘A Rose in Bengal’ he alludes to the 1940’s famine in Bengal in which millions of people perished.

Since the poet is wandering amongst the ruins of the past, he refers to mythical figures from the past. We get glimpses of Sibyls chanting prayers or dirges, Orpheus humming to a lyre’s chords while sacred pyres are lit at the tomb of Eurydice, the image of Poseidon forming over the ocean. In ‘The Resurrections’ the Sibyls have foreseen Circe, Antigone, Daphne, Niobe, Hermione, Dione, Eurydice and Antiope resurrected from the dead.

The wanderer poet, amidst these ruins, also notices that the ruins are surrounded by natural beauty. In the very first poem we get:


Bands of rain dissolve in radiant mirages.
Curtains of white sand shimmer around us.


In the next poem there are “silver clouds in a translucent sky”. In ‘Shadows’ “light glints from specks of whirling pollen / the silver hummingbird races in shadows”. In ‘The Narrows’ “the wings of mynah birds shed pulsing sparks” and “cotton grass is silvered by frosted dew / where glistening fog flows in the narrows”. The poem ‘Over the Ocean’ has the following description of natural beauty:


Migrating butterflies swarm over the ocean,
As iridescent clouds form over the ocean.

Azure light flows from wheeling monsoons
That dissolve and reform over the ocean.


In ‘The Shallows’ we find “schools of minnows swerve between the shadows of herons, / forming bands of silver light that slip through the shallows”. Though the poet glimpses “vistas being erased behind him”, he always finds the beauty of nature even amongst this destruction.

After having studied the first and the third sections of the collection and the motif of ‘atlal’ we can now briefly consider the collection as a finished work. These ethereal outpourings are lucid, transparent and straight forward, the aesthetic pleasure comes from the combination of rhetorical devices and spontaneous feelings in spite of the restrictions of the rhyme and ‘radif’.

If we look at the imagery used in these ghazals, one finds an abundance of auditory effects along with the visuals. The cacophonous sounds abound in keeping with the ambience of catacombs and wraiths: the shrieks of djinns, cries of gazelles, wraiths howling, hissing sands, djinns yelp, winds scream, minotaur’s roars echo, and prairie winds groan. Along with these cacophonies, we also get numerous softer sounds too. We hear sibyls chanting prayers, notes of music are piped from Shaman’s flute, bodhisattva prays, breezes hum, Inca dove sings, the flutes of reeds pipe visible notes of music, wind mimics the sound of rain, pavilion winds chime.

The second section of this collection, “The Diva of Jalsaghar II”, is full of musical soft sounds. Here “the lark coaxes hymns poised in the throat of Begum Akhtar” and “the nightingale emulates the melody of the voice of Begum Akhtar”. The voice of the famous ghazal singer is compared to the sound of quail, Indian Sparrow, Ibis and flamingo. Martin’s whistle issues from her throat. Thus there is a sort of balancing of the harsh and softer sounds.

The book’s visuals are both pleasant and unpleasant. In ‘Eurydice’ “thick cobwebs sway like silk mist in the labyrinth / where flames dance…” In ‘[The shrieks of condors are echoing above us]’ we get “Green auroras transform to the foliage of a rainforest”. In ‘Night’ we have the image– “a drop of rain seeks the ocean’s refuge, exiled by the sky from which it falls tonight.” We also see in this poem “The water’s lip … pressed to the sand’s skin”. In ‘The Sea’ there is the following beautiful visual:


Racing dolphins leap through mirrors of water,
Squares of light like sun-struck pages on the sea.


These eye catching images are generously sprinkled over the skulls and ruins and  are usually combined with auditory effects.

As far as the rhetorical devices are concerned, the poet makes use of them in almost all the poems. He uses alliteration as much as possible. In poem no. 1 we have “Koans… confound”, “rain… radiant”. In poem no. 2 the “surf… surges”, “where… whale”, “swells & sandy” and “bleaches …broken”. In poem no. 3 we get “phosphorous … floating”, “cursed… castle’s”, “poppies pulsing”. Almost every poem has this generous sprinkling of alliteration.

In addition to alliteration the poet makes use of assonance as well. In the poem ‘[Floating sparks pulse like fireflies around you]’ the first two lines describe “the pyres that surround you”. The human emotion, in the presence of these pyres, is aptly expressed through assonance:


Floating sparks pulse like fireflies around you,
In smoke streaming from pyres that surround you.


The sounds repeated in the first line are: /eu/, /I/, /a:/, /^/, /ai/, /ai/, /ai/, /e/, /au/, /u:/.

In the second line we have: /i/, /eu/, /i:/, /i/, /e/, /ai/, /e/, /au/, /u:/.

The sounds /eu/, /ai/, /au/, repeated eight times in these two lines express the lamentation and sighs of the wanderer at the burning bodies. The short /i/ sound indicates suppressed cries. In keeping with the atmosphere of the ruins and the lost and vanished world, the poet uses lots of sibilants, expressing sorrow, sadness, and stress and strain. Out of these /s/ /sh/ and /ch/ and the /st/ consonant cluster are frequently used. However, these sibilants and the consonant clusters do not hamper the lyricism of the poems as there is a balance of the liquid sounds. This can be illustrated from the poem ‘The Shallows’. This twelve line ghazal has sixty one sibilants and seventy three liquids-/l/ /m/ and /r/. In another poem ‘[Flaming clouds circling Mt. Sinai coalesce]’, while there are fifty eight sibilants, the number of liquids is sixty three.

The poet weaves different ideologies into a web of one colour ̶ the djinns of the Arabic world coexist with the Sibyls and the bodhisattvas pray along with the shamans. While the sparks from the billowing pyres arouse detachment from the mundane world, the shamans pipe on their flutes to the prayers of Buddhist priests. Except for the book’s second section, which consists entirely of the long poem honoring Begum Akhtar, the poet has maintained the unity of subject and the unity of mood.

If we consider the poet as a ghazal writer, we do not get the theme of longing for the beloved, which is common in Persian ghazals. Secondly, he does not use his pen name (Takhallus) in the final couplet. But like the Persian writers he uses autonomy to the meaning of each couplet. He also follows the Persian refrain (radif) and like the Persian poets he places the rhyme (qafiyah) early in the metrical sequence. He retains both the couplet form and the autonomy of the couplet (sher).

The collection is a treat for the eyes and I strongly recommend it to all ghazal lovers.    



Asha Viswas

Asha Viswas is a former professor of English at Benares Hindu University, in Varanasi, India. She has also taught at Aligarh Muslim University and at the University of Calabar, Nigeria. Viswas has published six books of literary criticism and four collections of poetry. Her poetry has been featured in publications in Western Europe, the United States and Africa, and she had a fan club of her poetry in the United States.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Thursday, January 24, 2019 - 13:22