Jalsaghar, Steffen Horstmann, Partridge/India, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4828-8623-8
Review by Tracy Fiebiger
Feeling the stress of every day life and the need for a poetry fix? I have just the thing for you. Jalsaghar is an insightful collection of ghazals by Steffen Horstmann, who has been credited with helping to bring the ghazal to American culture. His style is fluid and relaxing as he effortlessly navigates us through the channels of his mind. Thought provoking and in many cases heavily laced with imagery that places us into the ghazal itself, where we can feel, smell, and touch his poem. Rich with distant lands of timeless intrigue and historical significance, you may feel the need to dust off your passport after reading Jalsaghar.
I first read this book immediately after Christmas when it was a perfect and much needed chaser for the capitalistic rush of the season. Horstmann reminded me of why I love to read poetry. The second time I read Jalsaghar, complete with yellow sticky notes and highlighter, was in mid February. As all art inspires to achieve it was even richer and more appreciated the second time around. I did not use the sticky notes; however, for this review. It seemed more fitting to go with my totally unorganized heart. Steffen Horstmann directs the reader through a gloriously accepting point of view that notices the beauty within the transitory nature of life, in an open space full of potential, and even after leaving the page, his imagery and content will beckon you back into his world when you least suspect it – while you are driving down the highway, walking in the woods, or doing the dishes. They stick thick.
So, why are his ghazals special? Is it because he follows an ancient formula of meter and rhyme, or because he studied from the best, or because his appreciation for poets and poetry is obvious in his dedications, frequent contextual references, and footnotes? Is it because Horstmann bends the rules just enough to make his craft more meaningful and his own? Or is it the one, two, sucker punch to the stomach – the gut reaction of that sinking feeling, the pull of a heart string, or the trickle of a tear that make his work so memorable? Perhaps it is his choice of subject matter, or the feeling of relief to know that a beautiful mind skillfully captured a kaleidoscope of emotions and presented them as a gift for us to explore, allowing us to enter into his possibility and appreciate the human condition even more than before. Maybe it is something else beyond the definite. You can decide.
One of his most poignant efforts is a passionate tribute to the queen of the ghazal, Begum Akhtar. His enthusiasm is admirable and contagious as he educates and elevates us with couplets such as –
A bhodi tree sprang (through silk shrouds)
From the heart of Begum Akhtar.
& particles of light teemed
In a field of swaying jowar.
The Diva of Jalsaghar is particularly beautiful not only because of his unyielding devotion, but also because of the way he goes back and forth from one rhythmic invention to the next, alternating devices and yet remaining cohesive. For example, he varies the last word of each couplet yet maintains the last syllable of “ar” throughout all except twelve lines of this ghazal. It is interwoven and complex yet directly simple and effective. “The Diva of Jalsaghar” is long, containing seventy-two couplets plus the twelve lines that stand apart; yet, it works as a melodious passion mirrored between poets, one living and one passed beyond yet still connected in form. The following is from the twelve lines breaking form:
Where her voice shatters the crystal stars.
Where she is the frost of diamonds melting into rays.
It is as ifpassion spins into its own direction as “The Diva of Jalsaghar” flows like a song that builds into a crescendo of climax, which is only appropriate, as Begum Akhtar sang the ghazal as no one else ever has.
To read Steffen Horstmann is to begin to understand how important the predecessors of the ghazal are to him. He is a poet’s poet. Those who enjoy the craft of writing will enjoy his work, especially if they have a tendency towards the romance of distant worlds, or almost forgotten times, the delicate display of difficult emotions, the rush of love and loss, or the power of the page.
Shahid, I left you sleeping in a bed of light – knowing
It was I you were destined to forgive forever.
Although Horstmann dedicates his book to his mother, he also dedicates it to the memory of the award winning poet Agha Shahid Ali. I found it poetically gratifying that he also made direct reference to Ali in his second ghazal in the beginning of this collection in, “Forever”, as well as his second to the last, “Broken Ghazal”. It speaks volumes to see where a poet gathers inspiration as well as how he organizes it for viewing.
Shahid, you’re inside the fire, searching for the dark –
Having returned to claim a space within it.
Horstmann has a wonderful way of describing the natural world in all of its transitory beauty. It is here that he is most welcomed
A starlit bay where ghost ships sink in water
Tonight the moon pours silver ink on water.
I can feel the coolness of the night, the ripple of the water and silver sheen of the moon, as well as the thick, glistening flow of silver ink reflecting the moonlight. He has the ability to pull the reader into his world. We feel what he feels; see what he sees, and for a fleeting moment catch something that cannot be seen or totally grasped; but, somehow understood in the form of poetry. “[I knelt before dolmens
& a cloud rose over me]” is also another of his poems that exemplify lovely natural imagery in couplets such as:
I sleep beneath trees – the wind tangled in their branches –
Nestled in cold quilts the dark throws over me.
The simple eloquence of his words, the placement of his settings, and the mystery of circumstances come together to form intrigue and a feeling of sustained peace within the natural world. Indeed Horstmann comes across as being more at home within the geographical world than in the world created by men. So, for those of us who are also in love with nature, we find a kindred spirit in Steffen Horstmann’s work in lines such as the following from “In Your Country”:
The sun, throbbing like a heart evaporates
Blue mists flowing from caves in your country.
Love for the earth and its passing moments are so much a part of his poetry. There is peace in his descriptions of nature at times; yet, there are also the spiraling winds of change that tilt everyone off balance just enough to make sure the adrenaline keeps flowing. This is especially true when nature takes the form of a woman in poems such as
[You were entranced in the embrace of your destroyer], as is evident in this couplet:
Hers is the pestilent kiss of a chilled-lipped goddess
Implying of the subtler grace of your destroyer.
Yet another reason to enjoy Steffen Horstmann’s work is to explore his philosophy which shines through in his treatment of the impermanent, his ability to observe directly and convey that objectively, and within his use of emptiness and silence. Reading Horstmann should be prescribed after every political election. The following couplet is one from “Ghazal of the Beloved”:
Her presence now constitutes the hush between
Prayers – the sacred space of the Beloved.
The product of a disciplined mind, Horstmann shares his views with us with grace and certainty. He reminds us of what is really important in “Ghazal Spoken by Rumi”; here is an example from that poem:
What is abiding cannot be reduced,
Just silence when one divides the silence.
In conclusion, Jalsaghar is more than a clever collection of eighty-one ghazals. Steffen Horstmann gives us a pause between the rush, a reminder that we are alive now, of the ever present presence of death, and of our ability to reach into the life of others through the gift of a poem. His work is a rich and welcome addition to the tradition of the ghazal, complete with evaporating dew drops once cast in brilliant light and transposed into floating diamonds within the slithering currents of Jalsaghar.