To New York

By Léopold Sédar Senghor 1906–2001 Leopold Sedar Senghor

Translated By Melvin Dixon

(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.

                                          II
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 shinning 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.

                                       III
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, “To New York” from The Collected Poems, translated by Melvin Dixon. Copyright © 1998 by The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia on behalf of the University of Virginia Press. Reprinted by permission of The University of Virginia Press.

Source: The Collected Poems (The University of Virginia Press, 1998)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Léopold Sédar Senghor 1906–2001

POET’S REGION Africa

Subjects Social Commentaries, Race & Ethnicity, Popular Culture, Cities & Urban Life, Arts & Sciences, Music

Biography

Senegalese poet, writer, and statesman Léopold Sédar 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 and future French president George Pompidou. After earning his French citizenship, Senghor taught in Tours and Paris. He joined the French army during World War II and . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poems by Léopold Sédar Senghor

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Social Commentaries, Race & Ethnicity, Popular Culture, Cities & Urban Life, Arts & Sciences, Music

POET’S REGION Africa

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.