Language lessons (1982)

Heading north by auto-stop

out of Basel down the Rhine,

I’m picked up by a trucker Freiburg-bound.

My German isn’t bad but to me his accent’s strange

and shouting cross the engine makes it hard.


We chat a while quite amiably

about what I did and where,

then he passes me a beer and one for him.

I struggle for an age with the pliers he employs

till he shows me, single-handed, how it’s done.


Then he starts in on his story,

with the bottle in one hand,

how he should be on vacation with the wife

but, instead, he’d had to buy a headstone for their son.

I sympathise with caution, as one does.


It’s a touchy point of etiquette

how to make sure I heard right –

should I ask him how and when the young man died?

There’s a stage in language fluency when the major errors come

and all kinds of mixed-up wrangles are begun.


As I sat there questioning

how well I’d understood his speech,

it occurred to me that he was really drunk

and wondered just how reckless grief can make a man,

flying, tanked up, down the autobahn.