Christopher Reid “The Chocolate” (from The Curiosities)

I enjoyed The Curiosities immensely and want to say something about one of its poems, “The Chocolate”, which you can read here.

Commenting on a poem like this really does feel like breaking a butterfly on a wheel.

I love the suave modulations of its tone, the skill with which Reid creates the voice of an imaginary speaker and the brilliantly sensitive way he suggests the surges and sudden ebbs in the speaker’s feelings and levels of confidence.

The speaker talks about developing an erotics of chocolate. That’s funny in itself, but only one part of the poem’s brilliantly comic microdrama. As he presses his argument he acts out an erotics of pedagogy, wooing his audience with his ideas, and his thesis itself becomes the square of chocolate he offers to pop onto the reader’s tongue. Behind this there’s an erotics of literature or of artistic creation in general. On this level of reading, the speaker is the poet himself, offering to pop the chocolate of the poem into our mouths.

In terms of rhythm, the first seven lines flow and undulate like everything else in the poem, but their phrasing beautifully mimics the stiffness and pomposity of all too much academic discourse. At this point the speaker seems simultaneously self-assertive and guarded, hiding his passion behind a parade of academic rigour and abstract terminology.

Lines 8 – 9 see a tentative loosening and line 10 a sudden bursting of constraint:

but the complicity of the chocolate itself,
its secret desire to yield both form and essence
to the darkness and blood-heat of the mouth

Especially after the academic abstraction of lines 1 – 7 and the poeticism of lines 8 and 9, line 10 shocks us with the directness and metaphorical suggestiveness of its sensuous impact. For a moment, as if startled by his own fervour, or as if afraid of having gone too far too soon, the speaker pulls back:

Naturally, I expect my argument
to meet certain objections,
and I shall confront these in my opening chapters.

This pose only holds a moment. Up to now the audience has been general and abstract. Now, though, the speaker clearly feels that the reader or listener has been softened up enough. The mask of impersonality can be tossed aside. Using “you” for the first time, as if suddenly moving into our personal space, he makes the direct seductive offer:


But first, why don’t you close your eyes,
part your lips, and let me pop a square
that’s already starting to melt between my fingers,
on to your moist and acquiescent tongue?


To me this abrupt shift to directly personal address has an intensely dramatic impact. The erotic suggestions are almost blatant but they hold their power because they combine this near-blatancy with subtlety and indirection, a swirl of fleeting suggestions that keeps things in motion and prevents the flow of ideas from freezing into something bald and dead.

For one thing there are the intertwining resonances of line 19. Reid leads into it with great skill. The parallel phrases “close your eyes”, “part your lips”, “pop a square” create a driving pulse in lines 17 and 18. Contrasting with the fluidly extended line 19 (“that’s already starting to melt between my fingers”) they highlight how fluid it is. As they dissolve into it, they make its rhythm seem to enact the melting it describes. It’s as if there were two prongs to the seduction: the masculine persuasive force embodied in these phrases, and a softer, more insinuating tone that tells the listener (now clearly figured in feminine terms) that she’s melting already. Line 19 is a comic version of the traditional carpe diem warning that if we don’t seize our pleasures when we can we’ll lose the chance forever. As such it combines bullying admonition of the addressee with rueful reflection by the speaker himself on the transience of all pleasures.

There’s a special delight in an art that can combine absurdity and poetic force like this, an art whose magically sensitive touch can weave together such an intense celebration of the sensuous pleasure to be gained from the humble chocolate, such rueful acceptance of mortality, such sympathetic humour about the indirections of erotic desire, about the fervours hidden under dusty exteriors, the repressions and sublimations that are part of social living, the cheeky resilience of the life force in finding a way past them … The very lightness of the poet’s handling and his refusal to take himself too seriously make the ripples of suggestion so multitudinous, so vividly felt and so impossible to pin down.

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