A Reading of Medbh McGuckian’s ‘Sidereum Iter (His Journey through the Stars)’
Read this poem in full in My Love Has Fared Inland, Gallery Press, 2008.
An intimate, story-telling mood is established by the opening assertion and the mystery of the word “Something”. There’s “something” here, “something about”, a quality to be discovered. It’s intriguing that the “something” is related to an object that is small and generically variable; pebbles are not fixed in shape or quality. Our eyes are being directed to look at the often overlooked. The short first line has three strong stresses: “Some-”, “ev-”, “pebb-”. It's declaratory, the cadences giving it tower-like solidity against the movement of the next three lines, before the halting parallel pose of line 5: “as high as a horse’s bridle....”
“Something about every pebble
in front of the hall door
is a soft boundary easily crossed...”
The pebbles are in front of the door, so we’re moving. It’s a morning moment, moment of beginning, moment of egress, but do we go? And where is this? The “hall door” suggests a contemporary house, but pebbles and a horse’s bridle are less usual. While the pebble is hard, the boundary is soft, therefore internal, and not a line but an experience of small components. We cross to the autumnal “elegance” of “the leaf copper grasses”, which are "as high as a horse’s bridle”—for flight perhaps, or entry into activity. But activity is framed by “the unaltered crystals / at the beryl blue mouth of the glen.” “Something” remains solid in spite of change. We are in the marrow of stone.
There's a number in the second stanza, in preparation for stanza three: “fifteen river mouths / right around our shores”. This is an expansion of the spatial location. The buildings have a “tower fabric” with “semi-engaged turrets”. Are they real or psychic edifices? Are they a depiction? While linked with the “unaltered crystals”, they are not quite solid. Their windows are “ascending clockwise” (prepared for stanza four’s tampering with time). They are a “barrier against the fall of night”. Do they represent desire, health, chance, civilisation?
This almost certainly refers to Isaiah 38: 8, where God, speaking through the prophet, grants Hezekiah fifteen more years of life:
“As a sign of health
he was shown the sun moving backwards
over ten lines of the sundial....”
An internal landscape, then. But no, stanza five sets us in Ulster, with the “people of the Ulaidh”. Is the “he” Cúchulainn, and the story that of his recovery from illness via his tryst with Fand, woman of the Sí? That episode ended in forgetfulness, because Cúchulainn had been unfaithful to Emer, and all three parties needed to be administered a druidic potion so that they could cross over into a new phase.
“Behold, I will make the shadow cast by the declining sun on the dial of Ahaz turn back ten steps.”(1)
The shift to the past tense from stanza three onward is not a shifting of place or time, but a rumination on the present as converted to the eternal moment of recognition. Movement and time are arrested. When the illness was eased, “the nights were not so long / as they had been.”
The final stanza returns to the place that is no place, liminality, also associated with solstice (a point at which the sun seems to stand still). So there’s time—as understood by diurnal solar returns—and space, the perceived distance over which light travels.
We are in a map or tapestry, a thought paradigm, with one patch of ground beneath our feet—Ulster. And that’s not a patch but a whole province and an immense history. Do the “two most intense shades” refer to opposing factions, or the life and death dialectic of illness, and both? The last four lines are the landscape of death—white, cold, elevated, towers-become-mountains:
“Like maps backed in blue silk,
the sky’s colour fell between
the two most intense shades
in that ensemble of all the high peaks:”
Why two butterflies? For the future? Might he be split by death? Is he split by illness? The butterflies are plashes of colour with the flowers of the moss campion that blossom when the snow melts in the summer. The butterfly symbolizes the soul and rebirth, as in the legend of Etáin. Alliteration and assonance in the line-end cluster, "hermit", "highest", "butterflies" "glacier", leaves us with a sense of light, paradoxically rising as the whiteness of the scene gives way to the earthy "snout". From frost to blossom, all-colour to specific colour, illness conquered. He is there and not there, a trick of star-travel. We are crossing again, always.
“he would not find himself in hermit
country, moss campion, the highest
flowering plant, two butterflies
above the snout of the glacier.”
More from my ‘Essential Poems’ folder next month.
(1) The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, London: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1996.