Thursday, January 24, 2008

Before a Common Soil: Poems by Ifeanyi Menkiti

Before a Common Soil
Poems by Ifeanyi Menkiti
Dedicated to John Langstaff, Illustrations byKaryl Klopp
Published by Llora Press, Washington D.C.
Copywright 2007
68 pages

This is Nigerian-born Ifeanyi Menkiti’s fourth book of poems. He attended Columbia and New York Universities and later received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Harvard. He’s been teaching Philosophy at Wellesley College for more than thirty years and is famed locally for recently acquiring and running the Grolier Bookstore in Harvard Square, one of the most replete poetry corners in the country.

In his dedication to John Meredith Langstaff, the founder of Revels, Menkiti writes:

“I offer these poems in memory of a long friendship, and in acknowledgement of the power of song to heal a divided world.”

Divided into three parts - Getting to Know the World/Bearing Witness and Before a Common Soil – this lush lavender hued collection is full of iconographic cartoon pictures and mostly short, limerick-style (though often not rhyming) poems about the people and ways of many countries.

In How to Speak Nigerian, Menkiti offers this humorously edged account of colonization:

“In Bangkok where they speak Tagalog;
in Lagos where they speak Nigerian

Nigerian – what sort of language is that?

that the British carved themselves
a territory out of the swamps of Africa
and would have stayed forever
had the mosquitoes not given them
itches, malaria, and swollen toes

on His Majesty’s service was on thing

but to die of fever & snake bite
that was too much to ask an Englishman.”

Underneath the poem is a wood-cut like snake curled up against a gang of thickly-stroked black mosquitoes. These pictures add an almost child-like expression of innocence to Menkiti’s insightfully wry poetic observations.

It’s hard to fish out quotes from the entirety of these gems, but in a poem about a haven closer to home, “Central Square,” Menkiti writes of the Starbucks invasion:

“And then Starbucks became
“Tarred Bucks” and they said
it had a lot of stain
on its profits – this
according to the yells
of the yelling crowd;
and there was a leader
among them – a man
by name of Bruce Bombadier;
and he promised to pour gasoline
on the asses of the ruling classes;
he promised to burn them
until they could rule no more.”

A revolutionary at heart, or at least a strong sympathizer, Menkiti doesn’t glorify war or bloody stakes without offering the simple, concrete awareness of the hunger and the objects of it that mankind can never quite forsake. These poems are stylized to a degree – short lines, refrains – so that we feel engaged and amused at the same time. Even revolutionaries can be poked fun at. For instance, in A Call to Arms, he writes:

“Revolutionaries in the front line,
revolutionaries in the soup kitchen,

the fire they wish to bring
to the flesh of those who rule;
here, but also there, and everywhere…

“who fails to fight
is against those who fight

let those who are not
come out and declare why they should not be shot.

And, by the way, which one
Among you has walked
Away with his café latte?
His bowl of cream of broccoli beside it?”

Among his many and varied subjects are: Aristotle, Hector, Noah, San Francisco, Goetz, New York City and Billy Strayhorn. He harkens back to American slavery in Part 3, Before A Common Soil:

All Quiet on Slave Row

“Nor could they tell
Whether the Ne-
Gro was of Man
or was somewhere
between an ant-
Elope and a man.

We danced on the ephemera,
The ephemera danced with us,
us and the ephemera were one

But here, in our authentic
Southern sea, we wept

and spat the seed
of watermelon –

Jolly negroes
come to town.


Lord of tears
and perspiratory blessedness.

we shook, we shook
to the rhythm of juba.”

Even interlacing what we think of as stereotypes or pop images
with which we are familiar, Menkiti manages with an eloquent declaratory
sentence to synthesize and switch the meaning. With his unique musicality, the author stays somehow in a mirthful state throughout this collection. It is a mood wanting in today’s cloud of woes. You will not find dark decrepitude here.

In the middle section Bearing Witnes, Menkiti travels South to Georgia and then to the ill-fated singer Billie Holiday in a two part poem called, “Red Earth” in which he invokes her well-known anthem “Strange Fruit” about lynching:

1. On Georgia’s Red Earth

On the red earth of Georgia,
wind at the back of me
& wind in front of me;
wind whose lashings
the limbs could not take;

2, Lady Day

There were those guilty of being black;
whom the white rules
would not allow;

and there was terror
in the eyes
of the little children

terror at the sight
of a strange fruit hanging
from an ordinary tree
where are you now, Lady Day?

On one other more comic note about the “ghosts of New York” in the ‘50s, he writes of a diner named Beulah’s at 9th & 41st st. (Hell’s Kitchen) in a poem called, “Annabelle:”

“how at Beulah’s
at the corner of 9th & 41st
the cappuccino “just plain sucks
like a cup of piss water
three days old;”

and you ask Annabelle
to please clean up her speech
& she calls you a misbegotten
son of the Holy Ghost

tells you to get out of the way.”

Spiritual, visual in presentation, humorous, rebellious and kind, Menkiti almost always leaves space for us to smile or do a jig; a space for us to ponder further or remember the message of his little dreamed-boxes. All poets provide evidence of something – an emotional flash, a telling detail, a hard-won tale. In ending, I quote from the poem Evidence—one of his more spaciously philosophical treats:

Evidence by glossolalia –
placate the spirits
that ululate
by the river banks…

which way my darling
is the way out
of this difficult knowledge?

Which number, the number
of God’s own intimate face?

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Lo Galluccio for Ibbetson St. Press.
Lo is a poet/vocal artist and writer living in Cambridge, MA.

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