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The Scales of Life in Barbara Kremen's Short Stories

Catherine Gallagher

  The Damsel Fly and Other Stories.
Barbara Kremen.
Ravenna Press, 2005.
104 pages, $14.95 (paperback).
ISBN: 0977616207

All three of the works in Barbara Kremen's collection The Damsel Fly and Other Stories explore the perils of changing perspectives. Rather like Jonathan Swift and other eighteenth-century writers who wanted readers to feel the disorienting effects of being cast into worlds far too large or far too small for them, Kremen zooms out to the gigantic and in to the microscopic to refresh our perception as well as our awareness of the world's strangeness. Kremen's stories are all about disparities in scale, and, appropriately, the slender volume wears its profundity lightly. There are no grand philosophical generalizations about the need to observe large things through small ones (and vice versa), or poetic Blakean directives "To see a World in a Grain of Sand"; for Kremen's style is spare and her address to the reader impersonal, reminiscent of hard-to-categorize early twentieth-century modernists like Virginia Woolf and Isak Dinesen. While she never overtly develops a Theme with a capital "T", however, her method urges us to appreciate the vastly different scales of the worlds we encounter and the effects they have on our experience of life.

In each of these stories, characters wander into alien environments that are too big or too small for them, too empty or too crowded for their survival. In "Deceit of Snow," the shortest and most folkloric, an impulsive young woman and her hapless new husband emerge onto a glacier in a mountainous realm of pure, white snow, mindless of the danger its immensity holds. Indeed, their newly-felt miniaturization produces ecstasy:

They were mere specks upon the snow, gnats on a tablecloth. Perhaps the very vastness made them heedless, as though their insignificance would keep them from harm. They played like giddy children, chasing each other with shouts across the ice field, foolish as the butterfly that sometimes strays across the glacier, far from the meadow where it had browsed. On it flies, ever forward, and finding no place to settle, exhausted, falls to the ice to die. (88)

The butterfly's fate is not quite what the two young people suffer, but all three are out of their element, with senses unfit to perceive these spaces; all are ignorant of how close to eternity they've strayed.

Just as these beings face death on the side of a mountain "big as God," an elderly American widower, Arthur Brown, in the story "Ponte Vecchio" succumbs while trying to cross the short span of the Florentine bridge. Literally the Ponte Vecchio may be just a small structure over a river running through the middle of an Italian city, but Kremen turns it into a microcosm, a tiny artery through which the world pulses slowly and effortfully. Already too small to bear its little shops and world-wide fame comfortably, it is further burdened with a crowd of street vendors and tourists when the wretched protagonist (who has just suffered a heart attack) enters it. This blocked-artery imagery, so appropriate to the character's situation, is soon supplemented by another of Kremen's perspectival shifts when we are invited to see the bridge as a sluggish rivulet and the protagonist as a struggling insect. Unlike the real and metaphoric butterflies in "Deceit of Snow," Arthur harbors no delusions of immunity, for the radical shrinking down of space and time into this impacted bridge have rendered it bizarrely perilous, and the weakened man metamorphoses into a bug just as he decides to cross the street laterally instead of following the flow of foot traffic from one end to the other:

To oppose, now, the stream of life in the direction it chose to go. Shouldn't he float along with the others, instead of stubbornly and feebly trying to push across their path like some waterfly dodging a tide of debris? (68) 

In both stories, what impels the doomed characters toward their hazardous actions is a surge of reckless love: "He would pluck the flower that lay beside her," thinks the bridegroom as he launches himself over a crevasse; "he would buy his daughter the loop earrings," thinks Arthur as he tries to chance course on the bridge. What would have been simple, harmless whims under normal circumstances become impulsive, rash urges in their hostile environments, so that in the gigantic expanse and the narrowed walkway, the two men die of love. Should we conclude that these radically expanded and diminished perspectives are hostile to human connection, that the mountain "big as God" can take no account of it and the overpopulated microcosm is equally indifferent? 

The longest and most complex of the stories in the collection, "The Damsel Fly" makes such a question seem naive, for in it Kremen tries to wean us away from our exclusively human-centered perspectives. This story, like the others, guides us forward with extraordinary narrative energy, but it also insists that we notice the extreme differences in scale of the creatures we encounter, respect their incommensurability and their alien quiddities, and yet it also encourages us to acknowledge our fascination with their resemblances to us and their availability to our scientific, literary, and experiential appropriation. As we've already seen, Kremen is particularly drawn to insects, and here we are invited to think about a certain order of that class—dragonflies—while also considering why we think about them and how we draw analogies between them and ourselves. Two stories unspool in the course of this enigmatic plot: in one we learn retrospectively of the life and loves of a woman named Paula, who dies in London in a first chapter titled "Prologue" while leaving the scene of an encounter with her unmarried, pregnant daughter; and in the other we see Paula's bereaved widower, Henry, recovering from her loss at a cabin near a pond in the woods. Other, more mysterious, human characters make brief appearances: the daughter Ellen; a friend of Paula's, named Beatrice, who owns the cabin; an unnamed old woman who lives nearby; and, most mysterious and important of all, a late tenant of the cabin named Pfaff, who has disappeared leaving his belongings behind. The absent Pfaff is the presiding spirit of the place, and it is through his leavings (notes, drawings, books, binoculars, boat) that Henry discovers the life of the pond, and the insect protagonists begin to represent the humans. Or is it the other way around: is it the humans who serve as figures for the insects? We learn much more about dragonflies than we would need to know for the insects to serve as mere metaphors, and conversely the humans remain baffling.

In keeping with its perspectival shifts, the narrative point-of-view in this story is restless, not only flitting from one character's consciousness to another but also crossing from the human to the insect realm and back again with such finesse that each is rendered newly strange. Following the dreary and apparently unrelated prologue, the first description of the dragonflies seems a vivid, noisy contrast:

The excited air of noon shimmers in the heat and whirr of wings, so swift, so clear, as to be almost invisible, until turning they catch the sun's dazzle. Long jeweled bodies, sapphire, topaz, lapis, flash above the wrinkled water and their fractured images stain the pond with bent bars of color. (6)

The insects are so deeply merged in their habitat that they are practically indistinguishable from the atmosphere above the pond or the water beneath them; they are the air's excitement, part of its "shimmer" in the same way that the heat is. This description is not placed in the mind of any particular human character, although its figurative richness displays abundant marks of literary ingenuity, a characteristic style that develops as the description continues for several pages.

Only gradually do the dragonflies come into sharper focus as individual organisms belonging to different species—"A stranger leaps to center, long, elegant, blue-back from head to forked tail"—and at that point a new element enters the style:

These venations are as thumbprints to the species. The size and color of the smudged chitinous patch that joins the upper costal and radial veins, the presence or absence of the bisector of the anal loop, the angles . . . of the trigonal planate, these and other small specificities will distinguish Aeshna from Gynacantha, Sympetrum from the Libellula. (7)

It seems paradoxical that the telling differences among these insects, the signs of their species identity, should require the rarefied diction of scientific Latin. The earlier descriptions, appealing more directly to the mind's eye and ear seemed not to require that specialized scientific language, which is not even a "natural" human language, but an artificial concoction made up in the Renaissance by Western Europeans so that they could share across their mother tongues vast numbers of observations of the natural world, especially of the biosphere.

This is the first instance of Kremen's skillful crisscrossing of scientific and literary languages, a practice that makes us aware of the multiple and often fractured ways in which we seize other species for our purposes—psychological, aesthetic, folkloric, and scientific. Kremen weaves a unique poetics out of these disparate linguistic strands and also uses them as a kind of circuitry for switching narrative perspective. The introduction of scientific Latin, for example, signals the emergence not only of a specific kind of dragonfly but also of a specific character: "The big green and blue dragonfly now perching on the reed is an Anax, one of the Aeshnidae. As Agamemnon of the Atridae or Pfaff, the last of the Pfaffnidae" (8). The two short sentences are a tour-de-force of refining the narrative point-of-view while modulating among languages and metamorphosing creatures: the dragonfly into Agamemnon (leader of men and also betrayed cuckold) into the elusive Pfaff. Pfaff and the Anax watch each other, and the human tries to fathom how the insect, with its 50,000 "eyes" and 360-degree vision, might regard him: "Thousands of little 'him's' hunkered in the grass, beclouded by gnats? Or rather thousands of tiny pieces of himself, a mosaic of a large inert object to which the Anax gives little heed?" (10) Pfaff becomes a whole swarm of minuscule creatures in the insect's sight, just as he acknowledges his fascination with this "alien otherness." We never learn exactly why Pfaff and Anax are paired as "watchers," although drawings he leaves behind that indicate his obsession with plants labeled "false"—"False Foxglove, False Hellebore, False Loosestrife"—also seem to establish the link through Agamemnon's story. This human being is also an "alien otherness"; the last image of him, as he contemplates the subjective reality of frogs, is a metamorphosis: "People began to find something froglike in his appearance, the wide mouth, the flattened nose, the cold widespread green eyes, the pale freckled skin" (10).

Pfaff's disappearance makes room for the more knowable and human Henry, who occupies the other man's left-behind shell and takes up his occupation of insect watching. But Henry the bereaved, who allowed his late wife to keep the secrets of her past, cannot maintain Pfaff's impersonal stance. He is beguiled by the beauty of the Damselfly—the deep blue, fragile and needle-like species of dragonfly that is said to carry the spirits of the dead on their backs—and pathetically marks one of them with a yellow pencil to single her out as an individual, sits beside her every afternoon as she waits to mate, and feels disconsolate when she ceases to return to their shared place. Henry gives in to anthropomorphism and allows the Damselfly to comfort him with her presence and even with her name. But the story seems to conclude that Henry's view is the necessary human understanding of life, as Ellen (formerly scornful of her long-suffering stepfather) appears with her new baby just after the Damselfly leaves. Indeed, Henry's humane attribution of personality to the insect may be the more profound truth of things in Kremen's stories, since all this pulsating biosphere starts from individual organisms even as it seems simultaneously indifferent to them.

. . .