"Elizabeth Bishop: Petropolis, Brazil, 1952": a poem by Blake Morrison

My toucan is flourishing, now he takes cold baths:
he plunges in as though he hates it but knows he must.
Once wet, his skin goes the colour of blueberries
or as if he’s wearing jeans. I’ve a cat now, too,
black with a white bib, perfect evening wear for the opera.
The house is under a cliff, and I’ve my own studio.
I am so high here, so high. Clouds spill over the mountains
like waterfalls in slow motion, then float into my bedroom.
No one can tell me what day it is, or even the time of year,
all I know is it’s the season of blue butterflies.
I am learning Portuguese, which is packed with diminutives –
buttonholes are buttonhouses. I’ve bought an MG,
with red leather seats, which my story in the New Yorker
will pay for once they stop demanding changes –
one tires of typing even a masterpiece.
The fireflies move with milky blue lights, like distant trains.
We go to bed at 9.30 and read, surrounded by oil-lamps.
Apart from my asthma, and an allergy to cashews,
I feel better than I have for years. I know it’s a cliché
but Brazilians really are (which I love them for) crazy.

This poem, part of a longer sequence, is a collage of words and images that Elizabeth Bishop used in her letters. Blake Morrison and Ali Smith will discuss Bishop’s time in Brazil at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 5 April (cambridgeliteraryfestival.com; 01223 300 085).

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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Why Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were a real horror couple

BBC Radio 4's My Muse sees Kathryn Williams explore the eerie side of Plath's life.

The first in a three-part series in which artists describe the figures that have most inspired them (Mondays, 4pm) followed the English singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams as she went, first, on a pilgrimage to Sylvia Plath’s grave and later to a favourite spot of the poet’s atop Parliament Hill. Williams has written an album devoted to Plath and we heard bits from it – but those weren’t the moments that conjured up the poet. It was when Williams approached the grave in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire – and thunder clapped from nowhere as she reached the headstone (with its inscription from the Chinese: “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted”) – that this story really got going. “It’s baking hot,” she croaked, “and there’s thunder behind me!”

Occasionally we heard Plath herself reading from poems, talking in that Katharine Hepburnish way, a way you can’t quite believe she spoke in actual life, oddly decelerated and lustrous, slowing into a relentless and deeply uncanny imperiousness. Then, just as Williams visited the bench on Parliament Hill where Plath sat wretchedly after a miscarriage in 1961, a rat ran past her feet. “Wow! Look! What is going on?” By now both presenter and programme were deep into the boding mood that Plath can put you – the sort of mood where you’re bound to meet a million portents and omens. Someone mentioned a woman who thought she saw a picture of herself in the newspaper one day . . . and only after some time did she realise that it was Sylvia.

A more spooky Plath-Hughes ­experience you couldn’t make up. Both poets, masters of the harbinger. Sylvia pulling the worms off her body (“like sticky pearls”) after coming to, following a childhood suicide attempt, lying in a nook under the ­family house. Ted with his horoscopes and his dreams, recalling the howling of wolves in the aftermath of Sylvia’s death (London Zoo was just down the road from him). They were the great horror-writing couple: it is an abashingly real element, vital to their appeal. “Need”, “want”, “an addictive pull”, “moon” and “sea” – those were the sorts of words Williams used in speaking about Plath, in her kind and curious Liverpudlian voice, and with her songwriter’s noticing eye. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser