Priest’s debut collection, Horsepower, is a cinematic escape narrative that radically envisions a daughter’s waywardness as aspirational. Across the book’s three sequences, we find the black-girl speaker in the midst of a self-imposed exile, going back in memory to explore her younger self—a mixed-race child being raised by her white supremacist grandfather in the shadow of Churchill Downs, Kentucky’s world-famous horseracing track—before arriving in a state of self-awareness to confront the personal and political landscape of a harshly segregated Louisville. Out of a space that is at once southern and urban, violent and beautiful, racially-charged and working-class, she attempts to transcend her social and economic circumstances. Across the collection, Priest writes a horse that acts as a metaphysical engine of flight, showing us how to throw off the harness and sustain wildness. Unlike the traditional Bildungsroman, Priest presents a non-linear narrative in which the speaker lacks the freedom to come of age naively in the urban South, and must instead, from the beginning, possess the wisdom of “the horses & their restless minds.”
In many ways, this book reads as a spell of sorts, an act of creation in the midst of dark memories, collecting language, people, and moments to create a new self or story.
Horsepower begins with the chasm between the speaker’s parents and their communities, but by the end of the collection, the poems have revved and powered their way across the rift and leave us with this vital map of their journey.
Priest further illuminates what others might be still be too sheltered and comfortable to see. Her keen eye never fails to capture the nuances of situations that on the surface appear to be insignificant, but that once unraveled, reveal realities we can learn from. The personal always has the chance to be universal, and the more you dive into the memory of these poems in Horsepower, the more you arrive at an understanding that will change you as a reader and as a person for the better.
Through tragedy and triumph, Joy Priest’s poems thunder in the ears like a supercharged heartbeat. Her landscapes drawn technicolor, intense with paradox and heat, devotion is indistinguishable from rage. Horsepower seethes with so much intelligence and feeling that comparisons to Hurston are inevitable. Jean Toomer also comes quickly to mind, but Priest’s voice is one of a kind. Let these poems comfort you, if you dare, soft as the pillow that hides the gun.
Horsepower, Joy Priest’s debut collection, is a captivating display of might and elegance, a language of astonishing sinew through which the backdrop of place and a compelling life come into vivid focus. Undergirding these poems is a restless, resilient spirit: an urgent grappling with the desire to both remember and outrun the past, with history both personal and communal, and the complexities of American racism in its most intimate manifestation—familial love.I had, for/years, Priest writes, been taught to live that way. Black, unassuming,/zipped up in history....Throughout this remarkable debut, Priest shows us what it means to clear the stall, break out of the traces, and run unbridled into life.
Horsepower tells what it is to be a bridge in one's family between racism and a love forged in defiance of racism; it tells what it is to need to both escape that role and embrace it. And, just as importantly, it tells the arrival of a powerful new poet, a poet to whose stories I will continue to listen.
Joy Priest is a writer from Louisville, KY. Her first book, HORSEPOWER (Pitt Poetry Series, 2020), was selected by U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey as the winner of the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry. She is the recipient of the 2020 Kunitz Prize and her work has appeared in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, APR, The Atlantic, Poetry Northwest, and Poets & Writers, among others. She is currently a doctoral student in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Houston.