Sunday, August 29, 2010

"What an Old Man Sees Sitting Down, A Young Man Cannot See Standing Up" (IBO Proverb)

"What an Old Man Sees Sitting Down, A Young Man Cannot See Standing Up" (IBO Proverb)

By Doug Holder

Somerville resident, Wellesley professor , and Poet Ifeanyi Menkiti celebrated his 70th birthday on Aug 28, 2010. It was a surprise birthday hosted by his family. It started at the Dilboy VFW Hall in Davis Square, and ended with a feast and celebration at his home on Malverne St. just outside Davis Square. Menkiti is a celebrated philosopher as well as poet, and is the owner and some say savior of the famed Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square in Cambridge. Originally from Nigeria, Menkiti has taught Philosophy at Wellesley College for many years, and has published numerous collections of poetry, as well as being a loyal friend to poets and writers.

As evidenced by the crowd at the VFW Hall, Menkiti has touched the lives of a wide cross-section of people. There were fellow Nigerians in long, colorful and flowing African robes, as well as staid academics clad in boat shoes and chinos.

There were two featured readers at the festival that was hosted by Menkiti's son Bo. One was the noted poet and translator David Ferry,( Who will be a reader at The Somerville News Writers Festival) and Tomas O'Leary poet, and beloved Bagel Bard. Ferry read some excellent translations of Horace, and O'Leary charmed us with his witty yet profound poems and songs. O'Leary who defected to the Republic of Cambridge years ago, was born and bred in Somerville and was evidently in his element. As always O'Leary had a generous dose of the Irish charm and blarney with everything he read.

Menkiti's children, Nneka, Ndidi, and Enuma, as well as Carol his wife spoke of the man's sense of dignity, his commitment to education, community and his embrace of the cultures of the world. There was also a presentation of an honorary driver's license, a gift from Frances Tingle, the mother of Jimmy Tingle. It seems that Menkiti still does not drive at this ripe age, and takes a bus to work daily.

There were also presentations of Nigerian dance, songs in the native language of IBO and reading from the Nigerian poet Chinnua Achebe. The family put together a multi-media presentation of Menkiti's life that traced his beginnings in Nigeria to the prestigious trappings of his longtime academic appointment.

After there was a dinner and celebration in a large yard outside the Menkiti home on Malverne Street. Here Menkiti greeted many guests, family, friends and neighbors-- a long and varied lineage that has marked this man's rich life.

In many regards attending this celebration was like attending a big reunion for the poetry community. I ran into the poet and novelist Collen Houlihan, Tapestry of Voices founder Harris Gardner, noted poet Kathleen Spivack, President of the New England Poetry Club Diana Der-Hovanessian, novelist and W.B. Mason Creative Director Paul Steven Stone and his wife Amy, performance poet Michael Mack, Grolier Poetry Book Shop staff member and poet Elizabeth Doran and many others.

Menkiti has lived in Somerville, Mass. for many years, and I am glad to count him as a friend. He is one of the major players who has helped Somerville, Mass. become "The Paris of New England."

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