Loopy Numerology

The twisting journey from faithlessness in Philip Levine's "28"

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Philip Levine’s narrative poems rove widely through time and space. In “28,” a poem ostensibly about his twenty-eighth year, events and bits of information are by association linked to other times and places, much the way a short story or dramatic or comedic monologue proceeds from digression to digression. Although emotive power is generated by the particulars of each digression, it is the process of segue that confers on the poem a leisurely, if not languid, pace: the poem approaches meditation but retains the impact of its felt particulars.

The poem as river, perhaps. As journey. Or, best, as light from a star.

In 1956, at 28, Levine drove from Colorado to California in a green Ford, headed for Stanford University to work with, among others, Yvor Winters, whose first name was Arthur. We have come to think of Winters’s own poetry as gnomic and academically dry and, as time went on, more and more retrograde, but he was an exacting and admirable craftsman and as such his influence was considerable in his time and perhaps still is. He was 28 years older than Levine.

Levine, opening “28” with the declaration “At 28 I was still faithless” would not have meant he was unfaithful; rather, he was without faith. In God? Marriage? Friends? His work? Or might he mean he was not to be trusted? I take him to mean that, at 28, he was not passionately invested or attached or committed — was, rather, living in existential freedom. But existential freedom is not all that different from existential captivity, and since we know that Levine, writing “28,” is not still 28 — we learn from the poem that at the time of writing it Levine was 56, the age Winters was when they met — we are aware that the speaker is chafing against his stated condition. With his first line he yanked us into the poem as abruptly as if he reached up from his desk to pull us into it.

The premise that he is faithless returns at several points in the poem and serves as a kind of bass note or recurrent chord until, near the end, the speaker says, “I was 29 now and faithless.” Against this bass note we hear the mostly four- or five-beat lines of the poem as a steady yet lyrical development, carrying lightly the freight of detail.

I could rise before dawn from a bed drenched
with my own sweat, repack the green Ford
in the dark, my own breath steaming
in the high, clear air, and head for California.
I could spend the next night in Squaw Valley
writing a letter to my wife and kids asleep hours
behind me in Colorado, I could listen to Rexroth
reminiscing on a Berkeley FM station in the voice
God uses to lecture Jesus Christ and still believe
two aspirins, an allergy pill, and proper rest were proof
against the cold that leaps in one blind moment
from the heart to the farthest shore to shudder
through the small sea creatures I never knew existed. (ll. 34-46)

Of course, the shift from “allergy pill” to “the cold that leaps” is huge, however reportorial the voice, and the duet of reportage and extravagant image parallels the themes of freedom and entrapment and contributes to the overall sense of the poem as a Whitmanic song — an obsessive song, perhaps, given the repeated returns to the bass note. Moreover, in “the cold that leaps” we brush against the icy terror of existentialism.

Again, “28” slides through time and space in the way a short story might. One may think, for example, of stories by Alice Munro or Elizabeth Spencer. Backtracking a bit, we find that from the mention of his trip to California he segues into the story of a motorcycle accident he later had involving a desperately close encounter with a Plymouth bearing a family of five. Then we return to the trip in 1956. And then we find out that the poet while writing the poem is in New England — and that a dropped lunchbox reminds him of the erstwhile Plymouth.

. . .If only they had stopped
all those years ago and become a family of five
descending one after the other the stone ledges
of Sweet Potato Mountain and found me face down
among the thistles and shale and lifted me to my feet.
I weighed no more than feathers do or the wish
to become pure spirit.
(ll. 61-67)

He has lost a tooth or teeth in the accident and broken his glasses, but now we touch the bass note again — “28 years ago, faithless” — and this time the poem takes us into East Palo Alto. The speaker meets “Arthur, my mentor to be,” viz., Yvor Winters.

Arthur has “a voice ruined . . . by whiskey and coffee,” wears “a green visor and stiff Levis,” and proudly shows off his garden to his student. “He was almost happy,” notes his student, but like his student, “Arthur too was faithless, or so he insisted.” Arthur called himself faithless because he was without faith in a God who provides an afterlife.

. . . His face
darkened and his fists shook when he spoke
of Nothing, what he would become in that waiting blaze
of final cold, a whiteness like no other.
(ll. 100-103)

Arthur “was dying,” the poem tells us, “and he was ready.”

In the preceding passage Levine has described his own faithlessness as “the bitter black fruit / that clings with all its life to the hard seed.” He has not yet, he tells us, awoken to “mockers wrangling in my yard” or heard the waves at Bondy Bay (which can chase away nightmares) or “become a family of five” nor yet encountered the Plymouth. It is possible—the poem suggests—that these events, taken together, have made him faithful, or at least less faithless.

“By April” of that year, with the advent of spring, Levine decided that northern California was “a holy land,” but he was still, he says, “faithless” and—“not the father of the man / I am but the same man who all this day / sat in a still house.” In Wordsworth’s poem “My Heart Leaps Up when I Behold” is the famous line “The Child is father of the Man.” Levine tells us that in his case the Wordsworthian formula does not hold. He is not changed. Is he, then, still faithless?

Nevertheless something has changed. If not himself, then how he sees the world in which he lives. He is older; he lives far from California, in New England. Time and space have altered, and such shifting, or drifting, always entails a shift in perspective. He has lived beyond Arthur’s death. He is in charge of his own family of five, holding “firm / to the steering wheel” of life just as the father in the blue Plymouth gripped the wheel and held fast to his course.

Far from California, the “still house” in New England is “no longer new or English” and the weather is autumnal and windy. He hears the children playing on his front porch, the crows “on the rain spout” cawing. He could, he assures us, write a poem called “The Basket of Memory” and place in it all his images of the past as if they were Easter eggs about to hatch.

Why Easter eggs? we might ask. And more: Why Easter eggs “waiting to hatch”?

Surely because each image resurrects the past “as though I understood the present and the past.” He does not, he confesses, understand the present and the past, no more than he understands why an eight-year-old girl waves to him “as she darts / between parked cars and cartwheels into the early dusk.” Though he looks for connections among events, he recognizes that the events themselves may be random and inexplicable.

Easter eggs do not normally hatch, but an image might beget another image, a memory might lead to another memory.

When Levine was 28, Winters was 56. Levine was born in 1928. At the time he is writing this poem, he is 56, the age his mentor was then. 28 is not only the age to which he looks back but also the number of years that have lapsed between the move to California and the house in New England. (“Loopy numerology,” Linda Gregerson calls it in her very smart review, published in Poetry in 1989, of A Walk with Tom Jefferson, the book in which this poem first appears, adding that “Levine’s bittersweet critique of reason records the patent incapacity of form to structure meaning, all the while making meaning of vaporous coincidence.”) If the poem is about his life at 28, and it is in part, it is more importantly about the distance between the past and the present. It is also, one must suspect, about acquiring faith. At 56 he can begin to trace contiguous connections, parallel events, the repetition and return that graph a life; at 56 he has acquired a sense of life as plural.

The poem’s metrical steadiness supports the broad movements of the narrative, and because the voice is measured, we trust it and follow it on all the detours, torques, and switchbacks his memory takes. The several events within the poem, though not — purposefully not — described in chronological order, echo and resonate, with the result that, different as they are, they circle one another, becoming a unified “event” that is the transcription of — not memory, but of a theme, which on occasion may be a theme of memory. It is rather like serious music in that thematic exploration or interrogation in a sense is the subject of the work, as of the long poem. Narrative strategies in “28” include reiteration and segue, repeated return to the bass note, shifts in time and place that may seem ambiguous at first glance and oddly insistent at second, and efficient “naming” description (“blue Plymouth,” “still house”). These devices are also musical devices and work to create the sense of a sustained song and they are simultaneously devices designed to grip the story-telling memory, as in the lengthy oral epics of ancient civilizations. Of course, it is because the narrative in Levine’s poem is not epic that the poet is free to develop ambiguity wherever he likes: the reader can always look back to see when and where the poem hijacked him and brought him to the place he is in now.

In his essay “The Long Embrace: Philip Levine’s Longer Poems,” Richard Jackson has pointed out how Levine’s poems tend to occur as a “moment” in a “temporary now,” implicitly suggesting a “before” and an “after” in which things were or will be different. We do not see in this poem many historical events to persuade us that time is passing or has passed, but seasons are delineated and extended time is built into the poem or implied by its segues. With this heightened awareness of time changing, “28” develops a historical dimension and suggests that more poems will follow. 28 years is a long time for a human being and Levine’s poem illustrates how years are stacked on years, gaining in complication.

Memory itself, we know, changes over time, invents and subtracts and distorts, and the very contours of it may shift and realign, like tectonic plates. Yet we do believe Levine’s reading of his own memories even if we might wonder if some of the memories are fictional. That is to say that at some level the reader understands she is not expected to believe that the poet has remained “faithless.” If “faithless” can mean uncommitted, and of course it can, “28” testifies to his desire to remember and to understand. He is committed to life.

And, clearly, to art, of which the poem itself is a considerable example. In 150 lines he describes the arc(s) of a life, pays tribute to a former teacher, and establishes a sense of life’s continuity (though a life may be broken or briefly on hold), patterns and generations, especially generations of students, recurring and changing. This is what the long poem can do so particularly, and in Levine’s hands so masterfully, well: seek out and shape from the confluence of materials a theme that holds the materials in place and in mind, which is to say, makes of them a coherent whole, a vision.

There remains a mystery in this poem: “Since then,” he writes near the beginning, having informed us of the illness he experienced as he made his way west, “I have died / only twice.” He was sick enough to sleep “almost 14 hours in a motel / above Salt Lake City.” The second time was the blue Plymouth/motorcycle accident. What was the other near-death experience? We don’t know. Could it have been the point at which he became faithful, given that the transition — or transformation — from faithlessness to fidelity may be fully equal to the difference between child and father, or child and adult? Some will think so. But perhaps not Levine himself, who leaves us with the impression that he has written his “Basket of Memory” but is fully aware that none of it is comprehensible, that the particulars of a life, any life, are always both known and unknown to the owner of the life and cleave to no logic. What is important, we might conclude, is that we accept this and applaud the particulars. It is, after all, by living that we learn what life is. • 11 March 2015

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is now available.

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