Léopold Sédar Senghor was the first president of a post-colonial, independent Senegal, from 1960 until 1980. But long before he was president, Senghor was an intellectual and a poet. After the first year of his presidency, in 1961, he published a collection entitled Nocturnes. An English translation from the original French — by Wake and Reed — was published some years later. In the author’s note at the end of his poetry collection, Senghor writes, “I write primarily for my own people,” and this comes through clearly, with a host of references to specific places that may have been familiar to Senegalese readers in the 1960s but are lost on this U.S. reader in the 2010s. He includes a glossary in the back which only partially mitigates the challenge, so I admit that much of this collection passed above my head. But not all of it! Even to an unfamiliar reader, his poetry contains powerful images.
Some of the images are of fickle, potentially unrequited love:
I have woven you a song and you did not hear me…
I have offered you my wild flowers. Will you let them wither,
Finding distraction in the mayflies dancing?
Another plays with the concept of Western versus African religious beliefs in the context of insomnia:
Roads of insomnia, roads at noon, these long nightlong roads!
How long is it now since I entered civilisation and still I have not succeeded in appeasing the white God of Sleep.
O I speak his language yes, but listen to my accent.
Or the power of music and dance:
Rhythm drives out the fear that has us by the throat.
At other times I felt mystified, as when Senghor speaks of
And your lips are bread filling my breast that hisses like a black snake.
All in all, a worthy read from a great intellectual.
This is book #26 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.