Kathleen Wall & Veronica Geminder. Visible Cities. (University of Calgary Press 2018).
How to write ekphrasis? There’s no easy answer, but Kathleen Wall has approached the problem through collaboration, in the case of Visible Cities, with her daughter, Veronica Geminder, whose photographs throughout this book demonstrate an eye for the sharply defined abstraction to be found in cityscapes seen with clear sight & provide the poet not so much with some visual to describe as a generative image to propel a narrative out & away from it. On the whole, the poems in Visible Cities offer other views of what may be happening in the spaces so sharply delineated by Geminder’s fine photographs; they are complements rather than replicants. The photos are something to take off from, they let the poet’s imagination float free: ‘Patterns of poetry and physics / … mapped over the tangle / of your synapses.’
The photographer and poet move from Regina & Saskatoon to Ottawa, Montreal, New York, Chicago, Paris, & Venice, each city offering its own possibilities to see & to say. It works like this: in Chicago, Geminder has a quietly superb photo of a narrow alley, glass filled building on one side, brownish wall on the other, & what is probably a loading dock near the bottom; Wall does begin with that loading dock, but soon shifts (as her narratives tend to do) to the ‘back door of your life / … starkly, lawlessly / eloquent, a plain spoken relic.’ This you heads off to a home, where ‘Lightning had cut the power / and all you could read in the late / afternoon dark was your cell phone.’ Wanting ‘something / sublime,’ you ends up watching ‘the clouds billow / and unravel in the sharp blows of light’ & finally a ‘cold cup of coffee … / thunder rippling in its liquid oval.’
I see Wall as essentially a narrative poet, though her narratives can range from stories about imagined others to tidy tiny episodes of possible autobiography where ‘Walter Benjamin eyeglasses’ (through which Wall has been viewing all these cities) will oversee ‘a library of wool, / with its ladder’ & lead someone ‘plunging down the arcade’s years / like a time tunnel to bring Atlantis back / to Paris with colours brighter than the sea’s.’
Visible Cities is a gorgeous looking book, thanks to Veronica Geminder’s colour & black & white photographs throughout, but the photos invite the poems, & Kathleen Wall has taken up their challenge, not to simply describe them but to dive off their visual platforms into the sea of stories they make possible to an active imagination.