“Chocolates” appears in Louis Simpson’s collection of poetry Caviare at the Funeral in Section Three, directly after the title poem. Both the title poem, “Caviare at the Funeral,” and “Chocolates” reference or feature Russian writer Anton Chekhov, the nineteenth-century playwright and fiction writer known for his realistic portrayals of Russian life. Simpson’s idea of poetry as primarily a narrative act that details the real lives of people matches Chekhov’s own idea of what makes effective writing. “Chocolates” is a narrative poem that recounts a true story about people who go to visit Chekhov. After struggling to make conversation, the group livens after Chekhov asks them if they like chocolates. In his essay “Chocolates” from his Selected Prose, Simpson writes that he was at a friend’s house reading the daily newspaper when something sparked his memory of hearing about the incident on which the poem is based. Simpson says that he picked up a notepad and wrote the poem in a few minutes. With the exception of a few minor revisions, the poem was published as is. Simpson notes two changes he made from the original story. The first is that in the poem the speaker describes the visitors as “some people,” whereas in the actual incident the visitors were women. Simpson says he made this change to avoid the appearance that either he or Chekhov was condescending to women. The second change is the detail of Chekhov taking his visitors’ hands as they left. This is something that Simpson says he imagines that Chekhov would have done. This poem conveys the idea that human life consists of material events and things. Poetry itself should also consist of these events and things, and not metaphysical questions which can never be answered. Chekhov, though widely considered a genius, was uncomfortable talking about himself. In this poem his genius was in his ability to coax others to talk about subjects which really mattered to them, such as their preferences for different kinds of chocolates. A number of the poems in Caviare at the Funeral take Russia or people associated with Russia as their subject. Simpson’s mother’s family was from Russia, and in his poem “Why Do You Write about Russia?”, also included in this collection, the speaker remembers the voices of his mother and grandmother, who would tell him stories of life in Russia.
When I think about Russia it’s not that area of the earth’s surface with Leningrad to the West and Siberia to the East—I don’t know anything about the continental mass. It’s a sound, such as you hear in a sea breaking along a shore My people came from Russia, bringing with them nothing but that sound.
For Simpson, the sound of the storytelling voice is the most human element of stories, more compelling than the story itself. He attempts to embody that voice in “Chocolates” and his other poems.
Stanza 1: The opening stanza of “Chocolates” begins by recounting a story about the Russian writer and physician, Anton Chekhov. Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860–1904) wrote plays and stories known for their detailed characterizations of men and women who were frequently frustrated in their desires to live good and meaningful lives. His sympathy for his characters and his ability to present the comedy, tragedy, and pathos of a story all at once mark him as one of the most admired storytellers of the nineteenth century. Some of his bestknown short stories include “My Life” (1896), “About Love” (1898), and “The Lady with the Little Dog” (1899). His plays include The Seagull (1895), Uncle Vanya (1901), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904). The success of Simpson’s poem, in no small part, depends on readers’ familiarity with either Chekhov’s life or his plays and stories, or both. Chekhov frequently had visitors, and by referring to Chekhov as “the Master” the speaker underscores his own attitude towards Chekhov, which is one of respect, even reverence. Being spoken to as a genius makes Chekhov uncomfortable, and he changes the topic to the seemingly mundane subject of chocolates.
Stanza 2: This stanza continues the scene initiated in the first stanza. From the visitors’ surprised responses, readers understand that they did not expect the great Chekhov to broach such a question as “Do you like chocolates?” Though Simpson does not physically depict any of the visitors, his description of their reactions enables readers to imagine people with a rather formal demeanor. Using words such as “astonished,” and “whereupon,” also highlight the speaker’s own formality. It is obvious that he is comfortable describing the interactions of these characters.
Stanza 3: Whereas the second stanza focused on the visitors, this stanza focuses on Chekhov. Simpson provides just the right details to allow readers to visualize the scene. Combined with Chekhov’s “leaning forward” when he speaks to the lady, the image of the “light glinting from his spectacles” suggests almost a mischievous and seductive quality to the writer’s actions. A simple question such as that asked in lines three and four takes on added significance. Light and dark chocolate suggest ways of describing the world or one’s desires without actually being symbols of either.
Stanzas 4 and 5: Chekhov’s seemingly innocuous and strange question has occasioned a burst of talk, as the conversation about chocolates is now in high gear, with everyone contributing. The formerly staid and reserved visitors are now alive and expressive, not worrying about how they are perceived. Implicit in this description is not only the importance of the material and sensuous world in human beings’ lives, but of the small, often overlooked things such as chocolates. The speaker begins to draw the distinction between weighty topics such as politics and men and women, and shredded coconut (an ingredient in some chocolates) in the final three lines of stanza four and then runs the sentence over into the next stanza. This break between stanzas anticipates a break in the action of the story itself, as someone’s comment about “chocolates filled with liqueur” stops the heated conversation cold. These lines are humorous because they are presented as sounding almost scandalous. Simpson has written that during poetry readings these lines also receive the most laughs.
The speaker pokes a little fun at Chekhov himself in the last few lines of stanza five. Uncle Vanya is one of Chekhov’s most popular and often staged plays, full of witty and droll dialogue. It would be hard to imagine one of the characters in the play being at a “loss for words.”
Stanza 6: In this stanza the scene changes, leaving readers to imagine what occurred after the conversation ended. Two images end the poem: the first is of Chekhov himself, presented as the gracious host he has been, taking his visitors’ hands in a gesture of friendship and good will. The final image is of the visitors returning to Petersburg. That the visitors live in Petersburg—the second largest city in Russia and a place of great architectural and natural beauty—tells readers that they are probably sophisticated and cultured. During its history, Petersburg changed its name three times. Initially it was named after the fortress St. Petersburg, so called in honor of Peter the Great’s patron saint, St. Peter. At the start of the twentieth century the name was changed to Petrograd, translated from the Russian as “the City of Peter.” After Lenin died in 1924, the city’s name was changed again, this time to Leningrad, which means “the city of Lenin.” Its original name was reinstated in 1991. From 1712 to 1917, St. Petersburg was the capital of the Russian empire.
The understatement of the last line is in keeping with the understated tone throughout the poem and highlights the formal quality of the characters’ social relationships. That the subject they discuss is chocolates as opposed to, for example, baseball games or beer, also highlights the social class of the visitors and of Chekhov.