Masthead Image

Per Caritatem

Non intratur in veritatem nisi per caritatem. St. Augustine




Introducing Dr. Kristina Zolatova: Hollow Soundings

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

April 7, 2012

I am excited to announce the first of many guest posts by Dr. Kristina Zolatova. Zolatova describes herself as an “impure” boundary-transgressing philosopher, who takes no offence whatsoever at being called a poet. In fact, she welcomes the denomination, receiving it as a high compliment. Although a philosopher by training, Zolatova’s work is interdisciplinary and does not fit into ready-made, stifling categories, which, of course, puts her at odds with most academic institutions in the U.S. these days. Given my own love of transgressive-boundary, interdisciplinary work, I am happy to have Kristina join me. So here’s to a creative outlet for a fellow feminist, Catholic, critical-race, Augustine-loving, “impure” philosopher.

When I asked Zolatova about the poem below, she said that she wrote it during a time when she felt “out of sync” with nearly every institutional and communal setting in which she found herself.

Hollow Soundings

A strange place with strange customs.

 Ornate head coverings, odd masks masking a subject.

Is there a “second” subject?

Holy silence.

 Holy silence.

 Holy silence.

 Does it signify?

Tрудно сказать.

Content (pale) men clap their hands, embracing the silence and silencing the embrace.

Let the nightingale sing.

At least, at least let her scream.

This strangeness, however, exceeds the holy places.

The towers, ivory and otherwise, are filled with dogmatists, alchemists, and many other ists.

Left, right,

 Left, right,

 Left, right, left.

 Silencers all of them.

 Community (dialogue),

 dialogue (community),

 community (dialogue),

 dialogue (community).

Hollow soundings, shady submissions.


(Oна не здесь).

K. Zolatova

N.b. The word “subject” in line 2 and in the second to the last line should have a double strike-through; unfortunately, I have not figured out how to create this effect. Hacker advice is most welcome.)

14 Responses so far

Marvelous, profound, moving poem. Looking forward to reading more such posts.

Thank you, Chris! Dr. Zolatova is travelling at the moment, but I will give her a call to pass on your encouraging words.

Good stuff, Dr. Zolatova!

Thanks, Lou. I’ll share your comment with Zolatova when she returns from her travelling.

[...] pariahs to engage in emancipatory speech acts. My colleague Dr. Cynthia Nielsen, who blogs at Per Caritatem, has recently introduced me to the poetry of Kristina Zolatova, who like Arendt, is a philosopher [...]

Very fine poem, I look fwd to reading many more here. Would you ask Dr. Zolatova who some of her major influences are? (perhaps some of the ‘language poets’ Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian etc?). Also, is the picture of the woman with her mouth taped part of the work? Is it her own painting (dang but it looks familiar) or did she/you add or photoshop just the tape? I ask because these kinds of things can be important when engaging a poem. Much obliged.

p.s. long time follower of your blog Dr. Nielsen, thanks.

Just wonderfully lovely. Many of us find ourselves outsiders these days in the US.

Hi Daniel, Thank you for dropping by and for your thoughtful questions. I know from past conversations with Dr. Zolatova (Kristina) that she lists among her influences Mikhail Lermontov, Anna Akhmatova, Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams (to name a few.) As to the picture, I added it. Perhaps I should have given more thought to the picture, because you are absolutely right about the picture influencing one’s reading of the poem. The poem, on my simplistic reading, is (at least) highlighting various ways that women (in different institutional contexts) are silenced and thus find themselves as outsiders even when they are given various socially acceptable opportunities to participate in their institutional contexts. All the while chants of community and dialogue are sounded repeatedly and ever more loudly, but because academic and religious institutions are often so polarized, one cannot engage in fruitful dialogue about various issues. I’d be quite interested to hear which image you think would capture Zolatova’s un-silenced soundings. Feel free to post a link in the comment box.

Thank you for your kind words,

Indeed, “Seymourblogger”–I agree.

Your reading of Zolatova, Cynthia, seems very insightful, and after reading your comment and then rereading the poem again, of course my own experience with this poem has changed greatly. This is one way that good poems and good reading/writing work together and part of why we can go back so often to many major works and re-engage with them, as we rediscover marginalized, overlooked, even suppressed works that are allowed (or demand) a new voice.

As for finding an image to “capture Zolatova’s un-silenced soundings,” that is a bit problematic. First because I have been trying for years (without success) to avoid the metaphor of “capturing” when writing about any kind of art, even my own. I cringe when I think of how often I have said that some photo or poem “Captures the essence” of whatever and so forth. I mentioned the ‘Language Poets‘ above ( btw among their major influences are WC Williams as well) because part of their project has been to allow for more open readings, open sentences, freeing up words rather than using language as a process of limiting, narrowing, controlling (imprisoning?) meaning. However, I think that playfully trying to find some resonance and affinity (or even a counterpunctual critique) between an image and a poem can be a useful way of engaging it (of course we don’t know what the poet thinks about all this LOL, but let’s give it a go!)

To find an image I first went through the poem and singled out words that seemed significant to me (without, of course, suggesting that the poet/speaker shares my judgement in any way), and these are the words that stood out for me: “Strange, subject, silence, holy, dialogue, community, hollow.” The repeated words “Hollow” and “Holy” in the poem struck me most though, maybe functioning as a kind of non-oppositional binary that could be used as a fulcrum to sub-scribe or underwrite the rest of the poem. Some references for “Hollow” are: “Empty, vacant, vacuous, false, notched, specious, cavity, void, pit.” Many of these synonyms suggest something that is missing, absent, but not accidentally lost but intentionally taken away, carved out, whether for good (or evil? pacing our good Jesuit teachers). Masks have a hollowed out side, silence is carved out of noise, the holy sometimes marks a cavity in the profane.

Some references for “Holy” are: “Pure, sacred, blessed, clean, hallowed, undefiled, divine, righteous. Holy in the poem is paired with silence though, tripled and again with void or absence, linking the reader back to synonyms for ‘hollow.‘ Those trinity of lines can read like a liturgy conjuring an absent deity, or maybe a call into the void that receives no answer, or even a command to the holy to shut up?: Holy BE SILENT!?

Well, I eventually turned to google images for some help and after trying all of these synonyms as key words and not finding anything that seemed to have any affinity with the poem I simply put in “holy hollow” and the first picture that came up was this one.

[Dan, I had to remove the link because it was making my page load with a delay. Sorry!]

And so that is my contribution to this exercize. It is by an artist I did not know but whose work I really enjoyed discovering, especially his disposition from the cross. I look forward to seeing if any other folks offer some pictures as well and to what Dr. Zolatova might think about all this (I try my hand at painting and I would be complimented if some folks wrote poems about my work!). Thanks so much for sharing this poem, blessings and obliged, Daniel.

p.s. while trying to find a translation of (Oна не здесь) which I never did, I found an interesting blog on Hannah Arendt called the “Relative Absolute,” that also happened to be commenting on Zolatova’s poetry! oh, and sorry about the length, obliged.

Yes, that is a good point about the “capturing” language–(re)sounance is much better. (Oна не здесь means “she is not here.” The “she”, I take it, refers to the (female) subject whose subjectivity is evacuated in the various institutions/communities in which she finds herself. Communities whose “soundings” (empty words) ring, ring, ring with talk of community and dialogue, but in reality, sound hollow because they privilege (pale) male subjectivity. (Also the “second” subject line reminds once of Simone de Beauvoir and the “second” sex.) Given Zolatova’s love of T.S. Eliot, I take the nightingale image to refer to Eliot’s use of the nightingale in the Wasteland. This harmonizes with the female being silenced. Lastly, I think that the “Holy Silence” is not so much a reference to God being silent, as it is to the silence that religious groups and leaders in those groups, in the name of “holiness” silence women, appealing to Scripture, tradition, or whatever else works.

The nightingale juxtaposed with silence reminded me of Eliot’s Burnt Norton — his reference to the thrush, another name for the Nightingale. The thrush’s ornothological name is Turdus Philomela — Philomela, in Ovid’s telling of the story in his Metamorphoses, how she is raped by her brother-in-law King Tereus, boldly says she shall tell, in response her tongue he cuts out and rapes her again and again. The King tells her sister Procne she is dead though it is not so; tongueless and without her letters, she weaves a textile of her story and sends to Procne who comes to her. Together they fly away, Procne as a swallow–a bird with no song–and Philomela, a nightingale to whom Keats sings, “Thou wast not born for death, Immortal Bird.” Eliot tells : “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality” and “The trilling wire in the blood / sings below inveterate scar.” She is not there. Yet she sings.

Further, I wonder: “She is not here” — this Russian, is it (like) what the gospel’s give in angel’s voice at the empty tomb? If so, hollowness fills with promise and holiness — yet this subject’s body is still unseen. Also, the phrase is given in ( ) — is this where she is not, she is not parenthetical?

Much appreciate the poem. Thanks.

Thank you for your beautiful and thoughtful commment, “m webb.” I will pass it along to Zolatova.

Leave a comment