The Poem

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

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.

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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 awareness of life’s fragility that he first experienced on Tollhouse Road.

The second section continues the trip, through Squaw Valley to the San Francisco area, where narrative details lead to further speculations on mortality. At the beginning of section 3, Levine again returns the reader to the present. It is a gray day in New England. The poet, looking out of his window, watches children outside; once again, his memories slip back to near death on the road. In the fourth section, Levine resumes the trip with his arrival in California and subsequent meeting with Arthur, who is introduced to the reader as he tends his garden, a place where he is “almost happy.” (Arthur is the poet Yvor Winters who was Levine’s teacher and mentor in California.)

The next two sections describe details of his life in California, recounting his relationship with Winters. He mentions that he is still faithless, not yet part of a family of five, not having received the lesson of the mountain road. The sixth section, which describes Arthur, is poignant. At fifty-six, Arthur sees the Nothingness that waits ahead and deals with it by reciting French Breton poetry.

The final section begins in April, when Levine is twenty-nine and traveling from place to place throughout California, then shifts to the present and the poet’s house in New England. He realizes that he is the same person today as he was twenty-eight years ago. He watches the children outside, filled with poetic images of the past and present. He understands them no more now than he did at age twenty-eight; he doesn’t know why the accident happened in the past or the why the small blond girl waves at him today.

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

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 connection between nature and the poet’s emotional state is clear.

Similar connections between autobiographical, narrative detail and poetic imagery describing emotional discoveries fill the poem. In one long sentence stretching over nine lines of poetry, Levine moves from a factual description of writing to his wife to a metaphor comparing the voice of American writer Kenneth Rexroth to the one God uses to lecture to Jesus Christ. He then switches metaphor and theme as he speculates about “the cold that leaps in one blind moment/ from the heart to the farthest shore.” He is amazed that he ever believed allergy pills (or any of man’s devices) could be proof against the mortality that comes to all nature, even creatures that he never knew existed. Such dazzling combinations of fact, imagery, and emotion keep the reader moving quickly through the varied times and places in the poem. In fact, these rapid shifts in subject, these unexpected mixtures, help to create the emotional power of the poem.

This emotional power is particularly noticeable in the portrait of Arthur/Winters. Levine recreates Winters’s voice, ruined and graveled, for the reader. The garden, where he “was almost happy,” is filled with “wounded tomatoes” and “elusive strawberries.” Such details lead into the fact that the dying Winters is preparing for Nothingness, while reciting Breton poetry.

In his first books, Levine’s poetry was formal and metric. He frequently employed a seven-syllable rhymed line. He later, however, experimented with the length of his line. The poem “28” is written in free verse using the natural rhythms of speech. He uses long poetic lines to bind images together, often creating complex pyramids of images.

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Themes