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A Case for Denise Levertov as an Ecofeminist

Arcadiana, BLOG, Ecofeminism

Ecofeminism was not refined in its usage until the 1980’s when Levertov was losing popularity as a poet, so it is unlikely she ever would have used this term in her life (ignoring the fact that she did not want to be labelled as a feminist in the first place), however, her work and personal ideologies closely aligns with the general theories of ecofeminism established and refined throughout her lifetime. Most ecofeminist work written during the ’70s centres around “dualisms such as woman-nature that worked in opposition to that of men-culture” (Estévez-Saá and Lorenzo-Modia 126). These dualisms are the subject of many of Levertov’s early poems such as “Losing Track” and “Stepping Westward,” making her one of the trailblazers of this movement.

Many of Levertov’s poems use the moon or tides as a metaphor for celebrating her innate femininity, which follows one of Gretchen Legler’s, an ecofeminist literary critic, “emancipatory strategies” of ecofeminist criticism. In Levertov’s “Stepping Westward,” she says, “If woman is inconstant, /good, I am faithful to/ ebb and flow” (lines 3–5). The “ebb and flow” suggests images of tides, oceans, and water. Tides are controlled by the moon, which is a common motif for femininity. This image, coupled with her statement that it is good if a woman is “inconstant,” ever-changing, and unfaithful, shows a devotion to nature and its reflection of her inner femininity. In this poem, Levertov expresses the joy she finds in being a woman, the sense of self-sufficiency she feels, and the stability of her innate femininity in her life.

The forces of water are powerful and are always tied to femininity in Levertov’s work. Water is controlled by the moon in many of her poems, suggesting a devotion to this feminine power. Water often exposes dreams and acts as a source of creativity, while removing men and patriarchal forces in Levertov’s work. These images of water are important because they blur the “boundaries between inner (emotional, psychological, personal) and outer (geographic landscapes),” which is one of Legler’s emancipatory strategies, an ecofeminist way to think about the relationships between women and nature (Estévez-Saá and Lorenzo-Modia 140).

Not many of Levertov’s poems take a direct, feminist approach. Many of her poems, like “Losing Track,” encode ecofeminist values through the description of personal experience. In “Losing Track,” the speaker describes the tide as a force that takes a lover (presumably a man) away from her and exposes her dreams. Levertov puts her readers in a surreal experience in “The Room,” relying on the senses to make a feminine experience. Levertov adheres to Leger’s strategy of blurring boundaries between woman and nature in “Losing Track” as well. The poem ends with the image of “mud sucking at gray and black/ timbers of me,/ a light growth of green dreams drying” (Levertov lines 16–18). In this poem, the speaker is a pier, and the “green dreams” are moss on her piles (line 18). This moss is only exposed when her feminine force, the tide, takes her presumably male lover away. From this imagery, we infer that she is only able to see her dreams clearly when the presence of a man is removed. She is only free to explore her “green dreams” when the influence of the patriarchy is gone from her life and the tide has taken her love away (line 18). Levertov uses Leger’s strategies by blurring the lines between women’s inner desire and nature in both “Losing Track” and “Stepping Westward.”

In both “Stepping Westward” and “Losing Track” Levertov associates the colour green with feminine dreams. “Stepping Westward” opens with the lines “What is green in me/ darkens, muscadine” (Levertov lines 1–2). Muscadine is a plant, a grapevine that produces grapes used to make wine. These grapes are green when unripe and turn a dark purple as they ripen. The colour green is often associated with fertility and growing, while the colour purple is often associated with power and wealth. As the speaker in this poem is “Stepping Westward,” an idea long associated with the American dream, her dreams ripen or begin to come to fruition. The idea that the speaker is stepping into her power and passing through the stage of growth or fertility in her life into a place where she can “hold steady” is conveyed completely through images of the natural world (Levertov line 11). Levertov’s images work as a metaphor for a woman’s ambitions and dreams, blurring the boundaries between nature and human, because the woman is the plant in this metaphor.

Most early ecofeminist writers operated with “dualisms” as mentioned earlier. These dualisms are consistent in Levertov’s work. In her “Stepping Westward,” Levertov contrasts the bliss of being a woman with the “burdens” being “gifts, goods, a basket/ of bread that hurts.” These images are items to be bought, sold, and consumed; products of a capitalist society that tie the speaker to a system that she is “inconstant” to (lines 3, 26, 28, and 29). Similarly, in “Losing Track,” the speaker aligns herself as a manmade structure, a pier, to symbolize that she is a product of the patriarchy. She, a pier, is “half-in half-out of the water,” suggesting that she is partly feminine, partly masculine. The speaker also compares her lover to a boat, a manmade symbol of technology, the opposite of nature. When this lover comes to her, she loses track of the moon, her femininity, and the tide takes her lover away, exposing her “green dreams.” The presence of masculine, capitalistic forces in the speaker’s life made her forget her femininity and dreams. These images and metaphors reiterate Levertov’s dislike for the patriarchy and distaste for its degradation of women.

Levertov’s work demonstrates a deep awareness of the effects the patriarchy can have on women through dualism and exposes a dislike for those effects. While she disliked the label of feminist and preferred her work to be thought of holistically, the values expressed in her poetry are that of an ecofeminist. Her subtle connection of woman to nature and reverent tone when describing the natural world indicate her as a pioneer in ecofeminism.

Works Cited

Estévez-Saá, Margarita, and María Jesús Lorenzo-Modia. “The Ethics and Aesthetics of Eco-Caring: Contemporary Debates on Ecofeminism(S).” Women’s Studies, vol. 47, no. 2, Mar. 2018, pp. 123–46.

Jarman, Mark. “Lives of a Poet: Denise Levertov.” The Hudson Review, Accessed July 15, 2022.

Levertov, Denise. “Hypocritical Women.” Poetry Foundation, Accessed July 15, 2022.

—. “Losing Track.” Poetry Foundation, Accessed July 15, 2022.

—.  “The Room.” Poetry Foundation, Accessed July 15, 2022.

—. “Stepping Westward.” All Poetry, Accessed July 15, 2022.

—.  “The Well.” Poetry Foundation, Accessed July 15, 2022.

Siwatch, Pooja. “Ecofeminism and Value Based Social Economy in Feminine Literature: Allied Resistance to the Age of Anthropocene.” Research Horizons, vol. 7, July 2017, pp. 57–63. Academic Search Complete,

Abigail Zajac is the author of this post.

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