Sestina: As There Are Support Groups, There Are Support Words

The name of his native country pronounced on a distant shore
could not please the ears of a traveller more than hearing
the words “nitrogen,” “oxidation of iron” and “hygrometer.”
—Alexander von Humboldt, nineteenth-century scientist-explorer

When visiting a distant (and imponderable) shire,
one longs to hear the cry “Hygrometer!
Fresh hygrometer for sale!” Yes, and when the fair
sex sidles close and coyly murmurs “nitrogen”
into a burly masculine ear, I guarantee you: the translation
is very easy. The allurements of a local siren,

whispering the kind of patois a traveler like Lord Byron
favors, never fail to comfort, and to reassure,
evoking pleasant memories of one’s own beloved hygrometer
at home, kept fresh in Cosmoline and camphor
and awaiting one’s rearrival back in his native xenon and nitrogen.
Without these occasional reminiscences, any translation

from nation to nation, tongue to tongue, becomes a translation
difficult to sustain. I think of my grandmother: “We're not hirin’
today” “Go away” “Dumb Jew”—her share
of the language that greeted her here in the land of alien hygrometer
and freedom, where she was only one more funny-skirted for-
eigner yearning to hear a lulling Hungarian nitrogen

hum her to sleep. Eventually, of course, the American nitrogen
sufficed. Her daughter could speak, in free translation,
both uranium and argon; and her granddaughter gigs with Fire ’n
Ice, a skinhead punk-grunge group that performs in sheer
black nighties and clown wigs—she plays mean electric hygrometer
in the first set and then, for a twofer,

(very American, that) plays paper-and-comb. Far
out. She’s so fluent in various World Wide Webbery that nitrogen
in a thousand different inflections is her birthright, and almost any translation,
mind to mind, gender to gender, is second nature. “I earn
my keep, I party, I sleep” is her motto. Though she’s for-
tunate in having a lover who’s CEO at Hygrometer,

Potassium, Klein & Wong: it helps to pay the “hygrometer
man” when he knocks at the door. I won’t say that they fear
this guy exactly, but he’s a major badass nitrogen-
sucking cyberwired ninja-kicking shitheel (or, translation:
call him Sir). It makes one pine for a land where the birds all choir in
sweetly trilling melodies on a flower-scented shore,

and a translation sings all night. Row gen-
tly toward it. The tender forests sigh, and the soft whirr
of the hygrometer promises oxidation of iron.

Albert Goldbarth, “Sestina: As There Are Support Groups, There Are Support Words” from Saving Lives. Copyright © 2001 by Albert Goldbarth. Reprinted with the permission of The Ohio State University Press,
Source: Saving Lives (Ohio University Press, 2001)
More Poems by Albert Goldbarth