Fossil Record by Wayne Price

Reviewed by Stephen Payne

The fossil record comprises rare, fortuitously preserved remnants of ancient animals and plants, providing evidence, sometimes controversial, of the evolution of species; it is famously incomplete. Wayne Price’s Fossil Record is a pamphlet of poems concerning those odd, salient memories, each holding clues to a singular life.

The title poem is rather unusual, in that Price spends most of its 14 lines on the vehicle of its metaphor. It begins in a familiar mental state:

Wind was stammering at the windows all night.
If I slept at all it was a half-sleep
filled with thoughts that halved into dreams
and back again.

The troubled narrator is led to thoughts about the slow evolution of life, ‘Millions of years before difference began’, and wishes he himself could be given time to change, as he is asked to do by ‘Everything in the wind’ and by ‘children / who will remind us they never asked to be born.’ That sense of existential anxiety, coupled with regret about the past, permeates this short collection, rendered in straightforward yet rather lyrical, intense free verse.

Another poem to use an extended biological metaphor is ‘Vacanti’s Mouse’. Many readers will recall disturbing photographs of a mouse with a human ear growing on its back; the poem imagines this from the mouse’s perspective. ‘It grew like any metaphor….and though the burden of human hearing // has been hard on me……’ ‘Vacanti’s Mouse’ was runner-up in the inaugural Edwin Morgan poetry competition, but although, like the title poem, it is a fine illustration of Price’s voice and of his attraction to metaphor, it is less grounded than most of the poems in this collection, in which Price’s lyricism is trained on more biographical experiences.

The first poem, ‘Nightfishing’, brings together two scenes: an emergency ward at a hospital, and fishing by moonlight, including the visual and atmospheric

the moon’s fluorescent silver on the stream
is the night light over beds in the emergency room.

as well as the more structural:

Their bodies shape their homes. They have fattened
on smaller shapes that were images of their own.

Beyond these imaginative juxtapositions, it is perhaps the unstated psychological similarities — waiting, hoping against the odds — that give the poem its depth.

Other poems tell stories. I don’t understand why ‘anecdotal’ has become a term of dismissal in criticism of contemporary poetry. Yes, it’s a common mode, but so it might be, given the power of story and allegory for binding ideas and exploring their implications. Price’s anecdotes are layered and evocative.

Consider ‘The Weather at the End of the News’.  It’s a highly compressed story, almost a miniature novel, about a partnership, with scenes of togetherness:

Our first flat, in that delicate, drawn
city. Our first city! A basement
bed-sitter with a whiff of coal

and also of the solitude-within-togetherness where the mental records are laid down:

…April, May, I walked
an evening maze of colonies and mewses

to fish the small river, always
the colour of beer, in a skywards trickle
of Iron Blues and Dark Olives.

These details are rich enough to make me care about the young couple, so that when emotion is elevated toward the end of the poem, it connects:

…And when you wrote,
after twenty years, I couldn’t help it
I wept, embarrassed in private. Then
in another room, brightly lit, I watched

the weather at the end of the news,
pulling myself together…

The Weather at the End of the News would have made a fine alternative title for the collection— such a compelling and pleasing metaphor for after-the-event recollections and their implications for the future. In Wayne Price’s part of the world, I forecast a future of good poetry, with some risk of storms.

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