1940 - 2019
Terrible news that most of us already know. Ifeanyi Menkiti, beloved Trustee and Proprietor of the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, and extraordinary Poet and Philosopher, passed away on Monday, June 17, 2019. He was also an important publisher with Grolier Press. Below is reprinted the obituary posted by Keefe Funeral Home.
Ifeanyi Menkiti became, in April 2006, the man who saved poetry — or at the very least, he rescued one of its most revered institutions in this country by purchasing the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, which then was sorely in need of a buyer. “I have a strong sense of hope and belief that poetry can help our world,” he told the Globe a few weeks later. “The sense of a world together has formed a very important part of my own poetry.” A longtime Wellesley College philosophy professor who stressed the importance of fostering community, he was 78 when he went to sleep Father’s Day evening and did not awaken Monday morning. Dr. Menkiti, who had long lived in Somerville, had suffered a stroke several months ago, yet had impressed friends with his vitality since then, including at Grolier events.
“He was a nobleman in the best sense of the word,” said Robert Pinsky, a former US poet laureate who teaches at Boston University, and who noted that his friend was a significant writer, in addition to his concurrent careers in academia and developing real estate. He was an artist and a man of the community,” Pinsky said. Dr. Menkiti may have most succinctly articulated his view of humanity’s need to embrace a shared existence in his poem “Before a Common Soil,” whose title appears in one of its verses:
And I have called
out to you,
“The loss is hard to bear,” David Ferry, a poet who was awarded the National Book Award in 2012, said in a statement via the Grolier. “He is a great exemplary figure in the community of poetry here, poets and readers, because of his own eloquent poetry and his magnanimous fostering of the Grolier Book Shop with all its historic standards.”
Dr. Menkiti was only the third owner of the Harvard Square shop, which was founded in 1927 by Gordon Cairnie and is the oldest store in the nation devoted solely to poetry. Louisa Solano bought the Grolier from Cairnie, and sold it in 2006. Over the decades, the shop was a gathering place for the likes of T.S. Eliot and Elizabeth Bishop, e.e. cummings and Robert Lowell. Even within the remains of the once mighty print publishing world, shelves earmarked for poetry are few. So far as poetry lovers know, just one other store in the country — Open Books in Seattle — sells only poetry. “Ifeanyi was the kindest man, emanating benevolence,” Frank Bidart of Cambridge, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize last year for “Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016,” said in an e-mailed statement. “His even-handed generosity — not only as a poet, but as an entrepreneur who saved the Grolier Poetry Book Shop for the community of poets and readers — seemed to proceed from a sure knowledge of who he was, of his nature,” Bidart added. Cambridge poet Gail Mazur praised Dr. Menkiti’s “generous affection” for writers that was exemplified by buying the Grolier. “The only profit in it was the joy of keeping the whole enterprise, and poetry itself, alive,” she said in an e-mail. “He was an astonishingly beneficent figure in our midst, paternal and princely, adoring conversation about poems and poets.”
Ifeanyi Anthony Menkiti was born Aug. 24, 1940, in Onitsha, Nigeria, a son of Ozomma Charlie Nnaemeka Menkiti and Nwamgbafo Margaret Olieh. After secondary school, he worked in an office until his score on an exam earned a scholarship to Pomona College in California. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1964, and won the distinguished senior thesis award for his paper on the poetry of Ezra Pound. “That sparked his interest in poetry,” said his son, Obiora “Bo” Ifensor Menkiti of Washington, D.C.
Subsequently, Dr. Menkiti received a master’s in journalism from Columbia University, a master’s in philosophy from New York University, and a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard University, where noted philosopher John Rawls supervised his dissertation. Dr. Menkiti, who published four poetry collections, met Carol Bowers when both lived in international housing as NYU graduate students. She previously had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria. They married in 1971, and he began teaching at Wellesley in 1973, retiring as a professor of philosophy in 2014. He had saved his Pomona scholarship stipend, which he used for the down payment on the family’s Somerville home. “He never splurged. He never needed anything fancy or splashy. Relationships, language, and morals were the currency he dealt with,” said his daughter Ndidi Nnenia Menkiti of Brooklyn, N.Y. Dr. Menkiti washed his clothes by hand. Avoiding computers and e-mail, he kept paper and a pen handy. “One of the things that have been so wonderful about Ifeanyi is his sense of being a citizen of the world, and at the same time he so loved his own traditions,” Carol said. “He loved the music of Nigeria, he loved the language.”
He added the first name Chinyelugo after receiving a Nze na Ozo title in Nigeria, one of the highest titles the Igbo people of Nigeria can bestow. And yet, his wife added, his Catholic faith also meant much to him. “When he went to Mass here,” she added, “he’d say The Lord’s Prayer in Latin.”
Though Dr. Menkiti’s work ranged from writing to teaching to investing in properties, he secured a significant legacy by purchasing the poetry bookstore on Plympton Street in Harvard Square. “He was a hero to do that,” said Lloyd Schwartz, a poet and a writing professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “The Grolier is really a landmark for the poetry world in New England and beyond.” For Dr. Menkiti, the poetry that filled the pages on the Grolier’s shelves could not really be separated from music — from traditions that dated back to his childhood in Nigeria, where “there was a lot of song in the air,” he recalled.
“With poetry, for me, it’s almost as if we live in this song-denominated universe,” Dr. Menkiti told the Globe in 2011. “The music that resides inside the human tribes of the world, and the tears that the nations cry, their joys, it’s as if they’re not able to cry or have their joy unless they encode it in song.”
Sorry for more grim news, but many don't know that we lost poet and professor emeritus Michael Riley this year:
Dr. Michael D. Reilly, 73, a poet and marvelously good guy from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, passed away in March of this year. He published six volumes of poetry. A new book of poetry will be published posthumously, and is inspired by his love of mysteries and forensics. It is to be called Pattern Evidence. Michael was published in anthologies such as Irish American Poetry from the Eighteenth Century to the Present and Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust. His poems have appeared in 300+ books and periodicals, including AMERICA, Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review and Rattle. Michael was an accomplished musician. He performed as a saxophone player and lead vocalist in The Barons, a band formed when he was in high school. The Barons Blues Band reformed in 1981, was popular in the Lancaster music scene, performing in The Blue Star, Smokin' Jakes as well as the Lancaster Blues Festival at The Chameleon Club. There's a fine recent interview with Michael in Lancaster online.
Andrejika (Andrea) Hough, who passed away recently at 62, was a gifted narrative poet whose first collection, Island Fire, I was privileged to publish in 1998. She was a fine musician as well, and for many years taught piano to students of all ages in New York. A regular reader at the Belanthi Gallery series in Brooklyn in the late 1990's, she leaves behind a son, siblings and many nieces and nephews. Her work can be found in the archives of many journals, including American Literary Review, The Bridge, Anglican Theological Review, Pivot and many others. Copies of Island Fire may be found on a used bookseller sight, such as Powell's Books or alibris.com. Mark Jarman remarked of her poems in Island Fire "Hough steeps us in the harsh beauty of immigrant and city life. She has a gift for lyricism and narrative. Any poet who can tell us, as she does, that 'death, once more reluctant, stands aside' deserves our attention."