Melvin Dixon as translator: a handful of “love letter” poems by Léopold Sédar Senghor

Melvin Dixon in 1988_photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library


Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906 – 2001)

What are you doing?”


“What are you doing? What are you thinking about? And of whom?”

This is your question and yours alone.


Nothing is more melodious than the one-hundred-metre runner

Whose arms and long legs are pistons of polished olive.


Nothing is more solid than the nude bust in the triangular

Harmony of Kaya-Magan flashing his thunderous charm.


If I swim like a dolphin in the South Wind,

If I walk in the sand like a dromedary, it is for you.


I am not the king of Ghana, or a hundred-metre runner.

Then will you still write to me, “What are you doing?”…


For I am not thinking – my eyes drink the blue rhythmically –

Except of you, like the wild black duck with the white belly.

.     .     .

Que fais tu?”


“Que fais tu? A quoi penses-tu? A qui?”

C’est ta question et ta question.

Rien n’est plus mélodieux que le coureur de cent mètres

Que les bras et les jambes longues, comme les pistons d’olive polis.


Rien n’est plus stable que le buste nu, triangle harmonie du Kaya-Magan

Et décochant le charme de sa foudre.


Si je nage comme le dauphin, debout le Vent du Sud

C’est pour toi si je marche dans le sable, comme le dromadaire.


Je ne suis pas roi du Ghana, ni coureur de cent mètres.

Or tu ne m’écriras plus “Que fais tu?”…


Car je ne pense pas, mes yeux boivent le bleu, rythmiques

Sinon à toi, comme le noir canard sauvage au ventre blanc.

.     .     .

Your letter on the bed”


Your letter on the bed and under the fragrant lamp,

Blue as the new shirt the young man smooths out as he hums,

Like the sky and sea, and my dream your letter.

And the sea has its salt, and air has milk, bread, rice,

I mean its salt. Life contains its sap and the earth

Its meaning. God’s meaning and movements.

Without your letter, life would not be life,

Your lips, my salt and sun, my fresh air and my snow.

.     .     .

Ta lettre sur le drap”


Ta lettre sur le drap, sous la lampe odorante

Bleue comme la chemise neuve que lisse le jeune homme

En chantonnant, comme le ciel et la mer et mon rêve

Ta letter. Et la mer a son sel, et l’air le lait le pain le riz,

Je dis son sel.

La vie contient sa sève, et la terre son sens

Le sens de Dieu et son mouvement.

Ta lettre sans quoi la vie ne serait pas vie

Tes lèvres mon sel mon soleil, mon air frais et ma neige.

.     .     .

My greeting”


My greeting is like a clear wing

To tell you this:

At the end of the first sleep, after reading your letter,

In the shadows and swamps, at the bottom of the poto-poto of anguish

And impasse, in the rolling stream of my dead dreams,

Like heads of children in the lost River,

I had only three choices: work, debauchery, or suicide.


I chose a fourth, to drink your eyes as I remember them

The golden sun on the white dew, my tender lawn.


Guess why I don’t know why.

.     .     .

Mon salut”


Mon salut comme une aile claire

Pour te dire ceci:

A la fin du premier sommeil, après ta lettre, dans la ténèbre et le poto-poto

Au fond des fondrières des angoisses des impasses, dans le courant roulant

Des rêves morts, comme des têtes d’enfants le Fleuve perdu

Je n’avais que trois choix: le travail la débauche ou le suicide.


J’ai choisi quatrième, de boire tes yeux souvenir

Soleil d’or sur la rosée blanche, mon gazon tendre.


Devine pourquoi je ne sais pourquoi.

.     .     .

The new sun greets me”


The new sun greets me on my bed,

The light of your letter and all the morning sounds,

The metallic cries of blackbirds, the gonolek bells,

Your smile on the lawn, on the splendid dew.


In the innocent light thousands of dragonflies

And crickets, like huge bees with golden-black wings

And like helicopters turning gracefully and calmly

On the limpid beach, the gold and black Tramiae basilares,

I say the dance of the princesses of Mali.


Here I am looking for you on the trail of tiger cats

Your scent always your scent, more exalting than the smell

Of lilies lifting from the bush humming with thorns.

Your fragrant neck guides me, your scent aroused by Africa

When my shepherd feet trample the wild mint.

At the end of the test and the season, at the bottom

Of the gulf, God! may I find again your voice

And your fragrance of vibrating light.

.     .     .

Le salut du jeune soleil”


Le salut du jeune soleil

Sur mon lit, la lumière de ta lettre

Tous les bruits que fusent du matin

Les cris métalliques des merles, les clochettes des gonoleks

Ton sourire sur le gazon, sur la rosée splendide.


Dans la lumière innocente, des milliers de libellules

Des frisselants, comme de grandes abeilles d’or ailes noires

Et comme des hélicoptères aux virages de grâce et de douceur

Sur la plage limpide, or et noir les Tramiae basilares

Je dis la danse des princesses du Mali.


Me voici à ta quête, sur le sentier des chats-tigres.

Ton parfum toujours ton parfum, de la brousse bourdonnant des buissons

Plus exaltant que l’odeur du lys dans sa surrection.

Me guide ta gorge odorante, ton parfum levé par l’Afrique

Quand sous mes pieds de berger, je foule les menthes sauvages.

Au bout de l’épreuve et de la saison, au fond du gouffre

Dieu! que je te retrouve, retrouve ta voix, ta fragrance de lumière vibrante.


Kaya-Magan – one of the emperor’s titles in an old dynasty of Mali

poto-poto – “mud”, in the Wolof language

gonolek – a bird common to Senegal

.     .     .     .     .

The above poems first appeared in Senghor’s Lettres d’Hivernage (Letters in the Season of Hivernage), published in 1972.  They were written during brief quiet moments alone by a busy middle-aged man who was the first President of the new Republic of Senegal (1960 to 1980) but who’d also been a poet in print since 1945 (Chants d’Ombre/Shadow Songs).  The poems are addressed to Senghor’s second wife, Colette Hubert;  the couple was often apart for weeks at a time.


Melvin Dixon (1950 to 1992) was an American novelist, poet, and Literature professor.  He translated from French into English the bulk of Senghor’s poetic oeuvre, including “lost” poems, and this work was published in 1991 as The Collected Poetry by Léopold Sédar Senghor.  Justin A. Joyce and Dwight A. McBride, editors of A Melvin Dixon Critical Reader (2006), have written of Dixon:  “Over the course of his brief career he became an important critical voice for African-American scholarship as well as a widely read chronicler of the African-American gay experience.”  They also noted Dixon’s ability to “synthesize criticism, activism, and art.”  His poetry collections included Change of Territory (1983) and Love’s Instruments (1995, posthumous) and his novels:  Trouble the Water (1989) and Vanishing Rooms (1990).

In his Introduction to his volume of Senghor’s Collected Poetry Dixon writes:  “Translating Senghor has provided an opportunity for me to bring together much of what I have learned over the years about francophone literature and how my own poetry has been inspired in part by the geography and history of Senegal.”

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