Themes and Meanings
As Levine combines narrative and lyricism, he also combines themes, incorporating a number of motifs into the poem. It is impossible to ignore his richly detailed snapshots of American life. Levine has frequently been compared with nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman for his democratic portrayal of working-class America. Indeed, Levine grew up in working-class Detroit and incorporates those experiences into much of his poetry. Like so many of his poems, “28” presents brief, vivid, instant flashes of Americana: towns such as East Palo Alto, home to “divorcees and appliance salesmen” and people such as the Okie Sunoco station attendant on Pacheco Pass.
Levine also intends the poem to be a tribute to Yvor Winters. In the introduction to his memoirs, Levine expresses his need to honor the memory of those persons who helped make him the writer and thinker he became. Clear, narrative details based on Levine’s own experiences provide the vital emotional backdrop for “28.” For Levine, these portraits are intimately tied with poem’s main theme, the inexorable passage of time and the progression to Nothingness. The poem’s title refers to Levine’s age when he met Winters. Winters, twice that age, was dying. Now that Levine has reached fifty-six, the same age, he reexamines his life and relationship with both Winters and mortality. As the poem returns to Levine’s youth, the reader is also shown Winters’s preparations for death, the “final cold, a whiteness like no other.”
A sense of mortality fills the poem in many other ways. Even before the reader is introduced to Winters, Levine introduces the subject of death. In the first section, when Levine describes his motorcycle accident, he prefaces it with the line, “I have died/ only twice.” Death is a constant motif. The Sunoco station attendant warns him that an entire family had been killed on the road the day before. Nature, too, reflects this sense of inevitability. The sea creatures shudder from the cold that travels outward from the poet’s heart; the black roses in his backyard are “battered, unclenched.”
However, “28” is not a poem about hopelessness and tragedy. Death is seen as part of the natural progression of life. The last line describing Winters proclaims, “he was dying and he was ready.” In contrast to Winters’s preparations for death, the poet’s third child is about to born. Life and death are both present. In the present, the poet, now fifty-six, watches children from his window. The poem ends with a joyous, graceful image as an eight-year-old blond girl waves to the poet before cartwheeling away. Levine no longer repeats the poem’s opening line, “I am faithless.” Family, relationships, and memories bring faith.