POETRY: Return Of The Prodigal Son by Léopold Sédar Senghor

Return Of The Prodigal Son by Léopold Sédar Senghor

(Senagalese; translated from the French by Melvin Dixon)

To Jacque Maguilen Senghor, my nephew


And my heart once again on the threshold of stone under the portal of honor.
And a tremor stirs the warm ashes of the lightening-eyed Man, my father.
On my hunger, the dust of sixteen years of wandering
And the uncertainty of Europe’s many roads
And the noise of sprawling cities, and towns lashed by the waves
Of a thousand passions in my head.
My heart is still pure as the East Wind in March.


I challenge my blood in this head empty of ideas, in this belly
Abandoned by courageous muscles.
Guide me by the golden note of the silent flute, guide me,
Herdsman, brother who shared my childhood dreams, naked under his milk belt
And with the flame tree’s flower on his brow.
And pierce, herdsman, just pierce with a long surreal note
This tottering house where termites have eaten away windows and inhabitants.
And my heart once again under the great dwelling built by the Man’s pride
And my heart once again on the tomb where he has piously laid his ancient lineage to rest.
He needs no paper, only the troubadour’s musical page
And the red-gold stylus of his tongue.


How vast, how void is the courtyard smelling of nothingness,
Like the plain in the dry season trembling with emptiness,
But what woodcutting storm felled the secular tree?
An entire people had subsisted on its shade on the round terrace,
A whole household with stableboys and artisans and family herdsmen
On the red terrace that protected the surging sea of herds
On the great days of fire and blood.
Or is it now a district struct by four-engined eagles
And by lions of bombs with such powerful leaps?


And my heart once again on the steps of the high house.
I lay on the ground at your feet in the dust of my respect,
At your feet, Ancestors who are present, who proudly dominate
The great room of your masks defying Time.
Faithful servant of my childhood, here are my feet
Caked with the mud of Civilization.
Only pure water on my feet, servant, and only their white soles on the still mats.
Peace, peace, peace, my Fathers, on the Prodigal Son’s head.


You among them all, Elephant of Mbissel, shower your troubadour poet with friendship
And he partakes with you of the dishes of honor, the oil highlighting the lips,
And the river horses, gifts from the Sine kings, masters of millet,
The legitimate force of their lance. And among them all,
This Mbogou, of desert-colored skin; and the Guelwârs
Shed libations of tears at his departure
Pure rain of dew as when the Sun’s death bleeds on the ocean plain
And on the waves of dead warriors.


Elephant of Mbissel, through your ears invisible to our eyes,
Let my Ancestors hear my reverent prayer.
May you be blessed, my Fathers, may you be blessed!
Merchants and bankers, lords of gold and the outskirts of town
Where a chimney forest grows
—They have bought their nobility and blackened their other’s womb
The merchants and bankers have banished me from the Nation.
And they have carved “Mercenary” on my honorable weapons
And they knew I asked for no pay, only ten cents
To cradle the smoke of my dreams and milk to wash away my blue bitterness.
If I have planted my loyalty back in the fields of defeat,
It is because God has struck France with his leaden hand.
May you be blessed, my Fathers, may you be blessed.
You who have endured scorn and mockery, polite offenses,
Discreet slurs and taboos and segregation.
And you have torn from this too-loving heart
The ties that bind it to the world’s pulse.
May you be blessed, you who refused to let hatred turn a man’s heart
To stone. You know that I have made friends with the forbidden princes
Of intellect and the princes of form, that I have eaten the bread
That brings hunger to countless armies of workers
And those without work, that I dreamt of a world of sun
In fraternity with my blue-eyed brothers.


Elephant of Mbissel, I applaud the emptiness of shops around the noble house.
I applaud joyfully! Long live the merchant’s bankruptcy!
I applaud this strip of sea abandoned by white wings—
The crocodiles now hunt deep in the woods
And the sea cows graze in peace!
I burn down the seco! The pyramid of peanuts towering above the land
And the hard wharf, an implacable will upon the sea.
But I bring back to life the sound of the herds, their neighing and bellowing,
The sound modulating the flutes and conch shells in the evening moonlight
I bring back the procession of servant girls on the dew
And the great calabashes of milk, steady, on their rhythmic, swaying hips.
I bring back to life the caravan of donkeys and camels
Smelling of millet and rice
In the glittering mirrors, in the tolling of faces and silver bells.
I bring back to life all my earthly virtues!


Elephant of Mbissel, hear my reverent prayer.
Give me the skilled knowledge of the great Timbuktu doctors,
Give me Soni Ali’s strong will, born of the Lion’s slobber—
A tidal wave to the conquest of a continent.
Blow upon me the Keïtas’ wisdom.
Give me the Guelwâr’s courage, gird my loins with the strength of a tyedo.
Give me the chance to die for the struggles of my people,
And if necessary in the odor of gunpowder and canon.
Preserve and root in my freed heart the foremost love of my people.
Make me your Master Linguist; No, no,
Appoint me his ambassador.


May you be blessed, my Fathers, who bless the Prodigal Son!
I want to see again the room on the right where the women worked,
Where I played with the doves and my brothers, sons of the Lion.
Ah! to sleep once again in the cool bed of my childhood
Ah! to have loving black hands once again tuck me in at night,
And see once again my mother’s white smile.
Tomorrow I will continue on my way to Europe, to the embassy,
Already homesick for my black Land.


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