Visual Cities

By Christine Wiesenthal

by Kathleen Wall
and Veronica Geminder
University of Calgary press
2018/$22.99/160 pp.

Cities, like dreams,” Italo Calvino once wrote, “are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” The enigmatic complexities of urban spaces—“all the visible and invisible questions” they raise—are precisely the subject of Kathleen Wall and Veronica Geminder’s artful poems and photographs. Juxtaposing photographs by Geminder with poems by Wall, Visible Cities presents a kaleidoscopic journey through cityscapes as diverse as Ottawa, Paris, Chicago and Regina. Geminder’s images, taking evocative angles on such street scenes as flea markets, high-rise buildings, loading docks and “the technicolour language” of graffiti, provide a visual bricolage in dialogue with Wall’s poems, detailing “our history, its illegible fragments/ interrupting one another.” Often directly launched by Geminder’s photographs, Wall’s texts both imagine the “secret maps” of strangers casually encountered in the streets and probe details of place in relation to the poet’s own memories and associations, sketching in an elliptical autobiography. The result is an utterly compelling collaborative exploration of the richness of being in cities.

The illusions and allusions that constitute cities, as both built environments and imaginary spaces, merge seamlessly with Wall and Geminder’s concerns with the nature of art and artifice itself. Photography and architecture, for example, are equally arts of illusion, pondered in poems such as “Rue St. Honoré”: “Glass is so obliging,” the poet observes, “about/ inside and outside, so clearly/ in love with ambiguity.” As Wall’s poems thread “inside and outside” Geminder’s images, they highlight the “beauty unforeseen” in everyday urban settings—the “accidental” play of “shadows/ on curtains,” for instance, or the splotch of rust that resembles an abstractionist masterwork “à la Pollock.” But they are also more edgily aware of the precariousness of seemingly solid structures. “An architect’s model of a skyscraper” introduces a sudden note of queasy disequilibrium: “swaying in the Japanese earthquake,/ its glass singing.” “Destruction also is mysterious,” as the poet notes elsewhere.

Visible Cities is beautifully designed by a mother–daughter team who capture the singularities of urban experience with originality and a depth of sensibility alternately lyrical, wry and refreshingly candid. It would make a wonderful travel companion, not as a guide to any particular city, but rather as an evocative model for being alive to the teeming details of cityscapes. For flâneuses Wall and Geminder, no less than for that shrewd observer Calvino, “the moment is never simple.”

Christine Wiesenthal is a professor at the University of Alberta.

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