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.)