Between the Chains Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Between the Chains, Turner Cassity continues to display the taste for ideas, irony, meter, and rhyme shown in Hurricane Lamp (1986) and his six other volumes of poetry. In the title poem, the “chains” are those once used to block off a street in Johannesburg. To Cassity, these chains are various habits, one might say, that humans are bound by.

Memory, since it is a theme that begins and ends the book, invites one to see it as chains between which the ironically juxtaposed urges to let go and to hold back take place. “Persistence of Memory,” the first poem in the book, says that “the chains of masochism prompt” us to remember what we would rather forget: “Trash, payments, locks,” as well as sickness and death. In “Hedy Lamarr and a Chocolate Bar,” the narrator speaks of the control the unreachable female had over him when he was a boy watching Hedy Lamarr in a movie—and still has, he suggests, because memory keeps this event alive in him.

“Links,” “Invitations,” and “Laying It on the Line,” at the end of the book, return the poet to his memory. “Links” refers both to the smoke rings that the poet’s grandfather blew and to poetry. The smoke rings are an image for how the poet is bound to an urge to perform like his grandfather. He says, “I…Redeem my breath from utter shapelessness.” The irony here is the ephemeral nature of what he is bound by.

Such tenuous but binding phenomena appear elsewhere in the book. In “Invitations,” the poet remembers the neighborhood in which he grew up; he finds “ambition” and the “willingness to learn and try” gone from those who stayed there. If he himself has escaped such failure, he cannot escape the memory of it, nor, in “Laying It on the Line,” the memory of a failed love. He says, “I was in love with you/ a long time;/ I am still,” and he assures this lover (and the reader) that “just for you,/ just once, I broke my meter.”

“Ruth Keelikolani (1883)” and “On Several Photographs of Nikola Tesla” show characters who are prisoners. In the first poem, a Hawaiian princess is a prisoner of tradition (“the old Hawaiian ways”) and commits suicide in honor of it. In the second poem, the inventor of alternating current is a prisoner of the future in that he dreams ahead of his time. He is also obsessed with “feeding pigeons.” For both reasons, his inventions are stolen, and he backs out of a marriage to “J. P. Morgan’s daughter”; he is, that is to say, a prisoner of the impractical—ironically, of his own genius.

Economic power is a chain that binds humans. The mansions of the rich may fall apart, but the capitalists whom they symbolize continue to enslave others in “Power Failure.” “Bank Notes,” in saying, “in its simplicity of greed/ The Banque de l’Indo- Chine…looks increasingly to be,/ Of their and our more recent wars, a clear first cause,” seems to mean that those who control the means of survival (money) cause desolation.

“Parlor Song” is about a racism so binding that those who tell stories about it see themselves in the stories as its victims when they are not: “The anecdotes of slights/ And beatings are laid now on their own flesh.”

The irony implicit in capitalism and racism takes other forms in human life as well. “Acid Rain on Sherwood Forest,” for example, insists that it is as natural for humans to invent weapons as to create pension plans for the workers who make the weapons. In “Inducted,” the young men who are the promise of life are the perennial prisoners of armies that are the promise of death. In a lighter vein, “Campion in Uniform” juxtaposes Thomas Campion’s cherries, an image of sexual desire, against misordered army food, an image of tedium, while “For the Scrapbook of Mrs. Charles Black” puts side by side a soldier’s need for release from routine and an army camp town’s refusal to give him anything stronger to drink than a “champagne...

(The entire section is 1629 words.)