Wednesday, January 8, 2014


  Léopold Sédar Senghor 


  As Federico Garcia Lorca arrived and wrote his master stroke poems to New York City, so did Senghor, translated here by gay activist, professor and author Melvin Dixon


To New York

(for jazz orchestra and trumpet solo)

New York! At first I was bewildered by your beauty,

Those huge, long-legged, golden girls.

So shy, at first, before your blue metallic eyes and icy smile,

So shy. And full of despair at the end of skyscraper streets

Raising my owl eyes at the eclipse of the sun.

Your light is sulphurous against the pale towers

Whose heads strike lightning into the sky,

Skyscrapers defying storms with their steel shoulders

And weathered skin of stone.

But two weeks on the naked sidewalks of Manhattan—

At the end of the third week the fever

Overtakes you with a jaguar’s leap

Two weeks without well water or pasture all birds of the air

Fall suddenly dead under the high, sooty terraces.

No laugh from a growing child, his hand in my cool hand.

No mother’s breast, but nylon legs. Legs and breasts

Without smell or sweat. No tender word, and no lips,

Only artificial hearts paid for in cold cash

And not one book offering wisdom.

The painter’s palette yields only coral crystals.

Sleepless nights, O nights of Manhattan!

Stirring with delusions while car horns blare the empty hours

And murky streams carry away hygenic loving

Like rivers overflowing with the corpses of babies.


Now is the time of signs and reckoning, New York!

Now is the time of manna and hyssop.

You have only to listen to God’s trombones, to your heart

Beating to the rhythm of blood, your blood.

I saw Harlem teeming with sounds and ritual colors

And outrageous smells—

At teatime in the home of the drugstore-deliveryman

I saw the festival of Night begin at the retreat of day.

And I proclaim Night more truthful than the day.

It is the pure hour when God brings forth

Life immemorial in the streets,

All the amphibious elements shining like suns.

Harlem, Harlem! Now I’ve seen Harlem, Harlem!

A green breeze of corn rising from the pavements

Plowed by the Dan dancers’ bare feet,

Hips rippling like silk and spearhead breasts,

Ballets of water lilies and fabulous masks

And mangoes of love rolling from the low houses

To the feet of police horses.

And along sidewalks I saw streams of white rum

And streams of black milk in the blue haze of cigars.

And at night I saw cotton flowers snow down

From the sky and the angels’ wings and sorcerers’ plumes.

Listen, New York! O listen to your bass male voice,

Your vibrant oboe voice, the muted anguish of your tears

Falling in great clots of blood,

Listen to the distant beating of your nocturnal heart,

The tom-tom’s rhythm and blood, tom-tom blood and tom-tom.


New York! I say New York, let black blood flow into your blood.

Let it wash the rust from your steel joints, like an oil of life

Let it give your bridges the curve of hips and supple vines.

Now the ancient age returns, unity is restored,

The reconciliation of the Lion and Bull and Tree

Idea links to action, the ear to the heart, sign to meaning.

See your rivers stirring with musk alligators

And sea cows with mirage eyes. No need to invent the Sirens.

Just open your eyes to the April rainbow

And your eyes, especially your ears, to God

Who in one burst of saxophone laughter

Created heaven and earth in six days,

And on the seventh slept a deep Negro sleep.

Léopold Sédar Senghor
from The Collected Poems 
translated by Melvin Dixon
University of Virginia Press

Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001) was Senegal’s first democratically elected president from 1960 to 1981. A poet, writer, and statesman Senghor was born near Dakar in the town of Joal to a Fulbe mother and a Serer trader father. He was educated at the École Nationale de la France d’Outre-Mer in Paris, where he became friends with Aimé Césaire who he co-founded the Negritude movement, which promotes distinctly African cultural values and aesthetics, in opposition to the influence of French colonialism and European exploitation. After earning his French citizenship, Senghor taught in Tours and Paris. He joined the French army during World War II and spent 18 months in a German prison camp. After serving successive terms representing Senegal in the French National Assembly, Senghor returned to his native land, where he led his nation’s independence movement in 1960.

Residing part-time in France, he wrote poems of resistance in French.  His nonfiction work includes numerous volumes on politics, philosophy, sociology, and linguistics.

He passed away at his home in France at the age of 95.