The Oldest Forest


The Oldest Forest” by Jennifer Harrison came in 2nd place for the 2022 Sappho Prize, selected by guest judge Jos Charles. We’re honored to share this stunning poem with you.

Meaning might initiate the logic of diction as much as the other way around. “The Oldest Forest” refers to water’s vegetations, sure, but the sonic world of this poem—digging up the Latinate and Germanic up and out—is a forest too. The sea, too, a forest. And what those who speak this forest-language, have drowned, and still do, here. What waves, unprompted, might roll back.  —Jos Charles, guest judge


The Oldest Forest

My ancestors fed potato seedlings sea-wrack, spreading salt manure over barren fields,  tilling protein and minerals into the gutted earth – back-  bent, they wrestled growth into furrows – scraps, peels, moss – and still they died. Laver, they slow-cooked  into jelly, kneaded and fried it in lard –   like nori’s edible paper: a currency, netted, hooked,  traded between tribes, offered to a remote god . . . Entire forests washed up on my childhood’s south coast: brown and grass-green, gas-bladdered bubble-kelp, giant drifts of sargassum. We threw clumped fucus in each other’s faces and poked at ragged sea-pelt with driftwood sticks, afraid that vermin crabs and other small scrabbly things might find our arms and crawl  into our eyes. We threw rubber floats into the white  scrawl of breakers, taking for granted the looming light that is the sea’s blue conscience, calling. Beneath waves lurid fish swam through subterranean caves glinting in aqueous half-night, the loose foam above  heaving, curving, unfurling. The water was a place  sequestered, isolate and strange, a small glove  for a smallish soul, a momentary dreamscape with no dream-base, the waves crashing above like slamming wire doors –  habits becoming less fretful than small daily chores.   Office space (what and when to eat). Nothing, exactly, overlooks an empty covid street but you read about giant kelp forests in the New York Review of Books,  the ocean a machine filtering waves through pliant  shallows of sun, fingering chlorophyll into food for sea lions, whales, and the mullet’s schooling tide. Phycologist William Henry Harvey called his marine ideal ‘our oldest forest’, our ‘future’s guide’, these vertical meadows of bright lettuces, colander,  macrocytis pyrifer, cellophanes bunched, tangled like hair and that egg-leathery thing we tossed like banter  across the sand, bodysurfing to shore. Krill, bristle worms, keel-shells, the dusk’s star-bride, night prawns hanging onto debris for a ride, dispersing fragments: Fanta bottles, frayed string, plastic cards . . . Once I made a cyanotype of indigo silhouettes,  the ocean chemicalised into shards  of white space on primed paper, etiquettes of sea imaged by the sun, shapes emerging from light’s blue flaws. Dead man’s fingers, cabbage root, lewd clumps of putrid kelp rotting on St Kilda beach. The photographer and I waded all day until late  afternoon light sank through stinking drifts to reach a passable single portrait.   Face freckled, every fishline’s weathered freight exposed like flotsam caught in a tide’s old grate . . . but the sea is nothing if not imperfect, old with anguish. Beautiful I thought. Front cover he said. Real. In proportion. The publisher went for someone younger, bare- eyed with incandescence. Beautiful I thought a little in love with the ugliness of the afternoon’s there.  Petrels, periwinkles, bathymetric chart, seasonal cyanoshock of bioluminescent threat haunting the horizon, offering shorelines of grief 	belly-up white dreams of death silver clouds gathering above the ‘mass event’. The reef 	is visible from space, the long swathe of its dark sheltered coral, a comma combing from the sea 	its spine, a serpent hugging the coast to mark  the place where civilisation became divine, or free. 	There is no misery here, but only misery can tell the story of my people’s land of ashen fish, how the muddy phaeophyceae of history covered the ground, unrevived by the sea’s vomiting kiss. Blackweed, pigface, phosphorous rinsing off in the rain. Potato-eyes re-planted in finger-furrows again. Today the ocean sings to us there is more than enough. And waves roll in bonelessly, drooling saw-toothed stuff.
























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Jennifer Harrison