Between the Chains

by Turner Cassity
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1629

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.

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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 cocktail.”

Army life is also the subject of “Mainstreaming.” This poem features several ironies. A company in Fort Jackson is full of “borderline retardees,” for example, some of whom manage to get blown up in a grenade accident. One of the members of this company is Connor Kennington, the narrator’s friend, who has rebelled against his family by joining “the ranks” of the army; that is, he has traded a world of privilege for one of idiocy. The good luck that his background suggests, however, sees to it that he is assigned to Hawaii after basic training, while the idiots in his company are doomed to Korea.

In some of Cassity’s poems, vice is a target for irony. “The Incorruptible” shows a high school band on its way to a competition in Kansas City. The chaperon-narrator muses on the sin this city is famous for and on the naïvete that insulates the teenagers in his charge from it. He also imagines the irony of these innocents, on an outing to temptation in their youth, turning “into Pillars of Society” after they are old enough to have experienced vice. “Publicans and Sinners,” on the other hand, locates irony in social distinction, making fun of the latter by pointing out that the only difference between the upper and lower class is the glamour of the vice they both practice; “Bright green casino felt or grubby dice,/ The difference, at last is imprecise,” says the poet. Cassity presents another social irony in “Texarkana,” where the “cowboys” in the Texas half of this city “carouse,” while the people in the Arkansas half “Have quiet vices, or have none.” Alluding to the Berlin Wall, the poet does not find opposites side by side in human nature surprising.

Cassity brings up the mind in his book. The mind is another ironic chain in that knowing too little, and wanting to know too much, can make people fools—namely, prisoners.

That the character addressed in “An Attempt to Explain Anorexia Nervosa to Lillian Russell” responds in punctuation and a dollar sign to what the narrator tells her shows her to be a prisoner of ignorance. Plump, rich, and in love with fancy cuisine, she knows nothing about a disease inimical to what she is and wants, and in this way she is an image of how pleasure and good fortune can determine the extent of our thinking.

Sometimes, though, ignorance, ironically pretending to be knowledge, binds us to charlatans. “Knowledge Is Power, But Only If You Misuse It” says that as long as we think we can know the future or read one another’s minds, there will be those who will oblige by tricking us.

If so many things rule who we are, what we want, and how we behave, then choice does not mean much. “Other Directed” (a parody of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”) and “One of the Boys” (a parody of Thom Gunn’s “My Sad Captains”) make fun of choice. The first poem says that, since the world is awful, one should choose an easy path in it; the second poem says that those who choose romantic role models are silly, since they will have to become practical, whether they like it or not, as they get older.

Many poems in Between the Chains are in blank verse, and a good many in a kind of hexameter version of blank verse. When Cassity writes in stanzas, they are regular in that they are repeated, and they are frequently rhymed. “Links,” “Between the Chains,” “Texarkana,” “Mathematics Is Never Any Help,” and “One of the Boys” are in rhymed couplets—the first in iambic pentameter/tetrameter, the second in iambic tetrameter, the third in iambic tetrameter/trimeter, the fourth in heroic couplets, and the fifth in iambic hexameter. “Persistence of Memory” and “Power Failure” are in unrhymed triplets; longer stanzas structure “Fin de Siècle” (quatrains), “Publicans and Sinners” (five-line stanzas), “Invitations” and “The Incorruptible” (six-line stanzas), and “Campion in Uniform” (seven-line stanzas); all these poems are rhymed, though the last rhymes only the first and last lines of its two stanzas.

The prosodic strictures of Cassity’s poems are, one suspects, one of the “chains” he alludes to in the title of the book. To judge from the satirical glee of his tone in general and the frequently pedagogical stance he takes, Cassity is happily bound to this prosody. On the one occasion he abandons it, in “Laying It on the Line,” the last poem in the book, in which he admits to using free verse as a ruse to conceal a disappointed love, he cannot help but return to meter at the end—iambic pentameter, in fact. He refers to a lack of meter as the “equivalent of opening my veins,” then says, “But as you see, the beat keeps coming back.”

Though Turner Cassity’s poems do more to distance than shake the reader, they are refreshing insofar as they say things ingenious at least and incisive at most about a world larger than the poet himself, and do so in rhythms skillfully lifted above the level of prose.

If, finally, a little of the prissy and self-satisfied belittles the tone of Cassity’s poetry, such poems in the book as “The Incorruptible,” “An Attempt to Explain Anorexia Nervosa to Lillian Russell,” and “Links” outflank this tone, for their humor is more indigenous to their themes than pressed upon them.

Sources for Further Study

Lambda Book Report. II, September, 1991, p. 37.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, December 8, 1991, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, May 3, 1991, p. 68.

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