An Irish Word
Canny has always been an Irish word
to my ear, so too its cousin crafty,
suggesting not only an appreciation of close-work,
fine-making, handwrought artistry,
but a highly evolved reliance on one’s wits to survive,
stealth in the shadow of repressive institutions,
“silence, exile, and cunning,” in Joyce’s admonition,
ferret-sly, fox-quick, silvery, and elusive.
Craft, akin to croft—
a shepherd’s crooked hawthorn staff,
wind-polished wolds and peat-spent moorlands
high in the Blue Stack Mountains.
Akin to draught—a pint of creamy stout
or a good stout draught horse
or a draughty old house
like the one in which my grandfather was born
near Drimnaherk, slate-roofed, hard-angled,
ringed by thistles in a soil-starved coomb.
His four brothers left home
bound for Australia, South Africa, Liverpool, and Los Angeles
losing track of each other at once and forever
as if to loose the hawsers and set sail
were to sever every filial tether.
His name was Francis Daniel Campbell
but my grandmother Anna was a Monaghan
and her people had been
Maguires, Morans, Mohans, Meehans,
and other alliterative, slant-rhymed clans
all the way back to the nameless
bog dwellers and kine folk.
When her father died suddenly in New York,
he left three baby daughters and a widowed seamstress
with no recourse but retreat
to the old Rose Cottage overlooking Donegal Bay
in a parish of trellised thorns and ricked hay,
taking in mending and needlework to eat.
Market days they rode the train into Derry
to sell embroidered linens and hand-tatted lace,
kerchiefs monogrammed z to a.
She was nearing thirty
when she married and recrossed the Atlantic
and from her my own mother
had a recipe for soda bread, piles of drop-stitch
tablecloths, and a small stoneware pitcher
hand-painted in folksy script—
Be Canny Wi’ the Cream.
Nothing could move my brother and I to screams
of laughter like that tiny pitcher,
so serious of purpose, so quaintly archaic,
as we slurped down bowls of Frosted Flakes
before school in the breakfast nook.
The scrupulous economy of the world it bespoke,
the frugality toward which it gestured,
were as inscrutable to us then
as the great sea cliffs at Slieve League when
we drove to the top at Amharc Mór
on a road so thickly fleeced with mist
we might have been lost if not for the sheep
materializing like guardian imps,
imperturbable creatures, black-faced ephreets,
the ocean one vast, invisible gong
struck by padded mallets or mailed fists.
Amharc Mór means “the grand view” in Irish
but all we saw was fog.
by Campbell McGrath
from Poem Hunter