A Poet Drives a Truck: Poems by and about Lowell A. Levant.
by Lowell Levant
University of Akron Press, 2013
Reviewed by: Thomas Dukes
So much good poetry gets written but remains undiscovered. We should all be grateful that this is not the case with the work of Lowell Levant. A poet of what might be called the Berkeley School of the 1960s, Levant’s work reflects both the influence of the Beats and the great social changes of the 1960s. If his work and he were at once on the fringes of their times and immersed in them, both are also worth discovering. This volume makes that discovery possible.
Lowell A. Levant, a native of St. Paul, MN, grew up in South Gate, CA. After burning out at UC Berkeley in the Free Speech Movement (1964), Levant asked for and received conscientious objector status during Vietnam. He spent the rest of his life as a poet-member of the proletariat, a poet driving a truck.
As cited in the book’s introduction, Levant’s poetry is praised by Gary Snyder for its “‘complex depth . . . about work, machinery, trucks, equipment, repair, maintenance . . . . These poems have a unique presence in the real world, and they have great confidence and firmness . . .’” (11). Levant is also concerned with nature, voice, and freedom in language and thought.
This is not to say that Levant can’t be fun. In the poem “To a Mouse I Dreamed I Killed,” Levant begins with a cheerful, sadistic madness: “I flung you up the stairs/’cause you were in my bed/I was in a strange house/and took advice from others/while carrying you in my hand” (21). What makes that stanza work and what is typical of Levant’s voice is the line “and took advice from others.” That seeming non-sequitur anchors us in the poem with its understanding of how in the middle of the most mundane and unpleasant task, we find ourselves hearing other voice that become others who are part of the world even in this bit of daily minutiae.
In the second stanza of that same poem, Levant uses a longer non-sequitur to anchor the poem in the reality of his California of the period:
Berkeley has the same smog as LA
and freeway on-ramps, suburbs
grass dried gold
on a paved hill with a fence on top of it. (21)
This stanza is also typical in its presentation of Levant’s juxtaposition of the personal with the wider world. This almost bipolar sensibility represents Levant’s voice at its best.
Levant’s purest voice is indeed found in the volume’s title poem “A Poet Drives a Truck.”
Here the ordinary—“Inspect the equipment routinely and thoroughly”—is followed by the doubly-meaning “Explore alternative routes when feasible.” When the narrator says “Transcend rage and panic with humor and consideration,” that voice speaks and defines Levant and this collection. Levant undercuts any danger of sentimentality when he advises, “Look flowers in the eyes.” The courage to face beauty and nature head-on informs the book and, based on the biographical sketch at the beginning of the collection, Levant’s life.
Levant tackles the natural world in other ways. In such poems as ‘Juniper Scrub Mountain Shade,” “Painted Canyon Smoke Trees,” and the like, Levant engages nature with a welcome matter-of-factness that does not deny emotion: “The smoke trees in painted canyon wash/were mostly shriveled half-brown” (69). The first line creates beauty; the second line undercuts it but not harshly or meanly. (Levant’s poetry is incapable of gratuitous cruelty.) Poems like “Silver Moccasin” and “Mary’s Flat” take nature and anyone in it on their own terms. If Levant is a romantic, his is the romanticism of those who survived.
This volume has been lovingly edited, the poems selected with care and devotion, but neither the biographical sketch nor the introduction are mawkish in the least. I enjoyed this book for its evocation of the 1960s attitudes toward nature, quiet rebellion, and life. Perhaps its most defining quality is the beauty of its singular voice. I wish Lowell Levant had gotten more attention in his lifetime, and while it’s impossible for us to give all good poets the attention they are due, A Poet Drives a Truck is very much worth picking up and cherishing. I recommend this gem without reservation and great pleasure.