The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Based on Philip Levine’s own experiences when he traveled to California on a fellowship to study with the well-known poet and scholar Yvor Winters, “28” is a long narrative poem. In the opening line, the poet describes himself as twenty-eight years old and faithless, a statement that will be repeated throughout the poem. No exact meaning of faithless is given, forcing the reader to speculate about the poet’s intention. He then describes driving across the country while under the almost hallucinatory influence of a fever, seeing birds appear, then vanish, along the roadside.

Time and place are fluid in the poem. Levine shifts back and forth between the present and various time periods in the past. After setting the reader off on the cross-country trip that took place twenty-eight years ago, Levine moves ahead in time to an unspecified period, when he was injured in a motorcycle accident when a station wagon accidentally forced him off California Highway 168 (Tollhouse Road). The description realistically conveys vivid, fragmentary details remembered from the accident: the children’s open mouths, the long slide across the asphalt, the motorcycle tumbling away. A sense of mortality and death, which recurs throughout the poem, is first introduced here. This accident is an image that reappears several times, a warning of death. As the section ends, the poet returns to the present and describes how, even today, the scars on his arm return him to the...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem is told in the first person, and the details are clearly autobiographical. In fact, Levine has written a prose account of the same experiences that inspired “28” in an essay, “The Shadow of the Big Madrone.” It has been collected in Levine’s memoirs, The Bread Of Time: Toward an Autobiography (1994). This essay is extremely helpful in understanding the narrative details in “28”; in addition, it gives a glimpse into Levine’s poetic process since he includes his first draft of the poem in the essay.

In “28,” Levine combines strong, narrative details, which describe the people he meets and the places he travels, with lyrical, almost mystical, language used to describe nature and emotions. His descriptions of nature are rich with metaphor and simile. One evocative metaphor declares that the sea at Bondy Bay, which runs underneath his house in California, possesses the power to erase the “pain of nightmares.” Levine begins section 3 with another vivid metaphor describing nature. The sun threatens to withdraw its affection, a bleak image with which the reader can easily identify. Levine, however, extends this image by adding narrative detail in an extended simile. The pale sky becomes “bored” like a “child in the wrong classroom”—or like a man of twenty-eight, who forgets the names of the trees he has been taught (a reference to another incident Levine mentions in “The Shadow of the Big Madrone”). The...

(The entire section is 512 words.)