Horsepower by Joy Priest
Reviewed by jon jon moore
Alone, Black language cannot stop the bullet, raise the dead, or end this world.
And, some Black articulations of experience work rearrange our relationship to language: the past it narrates, the present it describes, and the future it imagines.
In reading Joy Priest’s Horsepower a second time, I was struck by the sobriety and self-assuredness that can persist in absence of a Self: the knowing of a Black girl becoming, against every law and learned thing.
And I was struck by how, with great intent, a Black poet’s relationship to place can unsettle the ground beneath the reader’s feet and in so doing, rearrange our relationship to language, if only for a briefly sweet moment.
In 32 poems across three sequences, the speaker—a Black child with a white parent— mourns muted knowledge and reflects upon what it means to hold the fullness of a life square in the throat. In the collection’s opening title poem, “Horsepower” Priest writes,
Beyond the spires
is a larger world I do not know
In and outside of Louisville to Lexington and across rural Kentucky, the speaker comes of age in (and departs) a household structured by white supremacy, arriving into a world perennially rearranged by brutality.
But just as she learns that this world is contoured by harm and silence, it is also ruptured by choice. The decision to stay or leave. The decision to leave or love. The decision to leave for a greater love.
“In Kentucky you are Black girl, but don’t know it” Priest writes in “Nightstick” and it is the irrelevance of this knowing in the larger scheme of things that haunts the text: anti-blackness and sexual violence permeate the world of our speaker, preceding her ability to name something like harm.
In “Elegy for Kentucky,” the speaker ritually observes a dark horse, dead on the road. Bearing witness to this “Lone black filly./Finished before becoming” she ponders how much duress a body can take before toppling “like a toy figurine.”
According to Priest: the speaker in Horsepower is “a Black girl in flight. Her horses, the mechanics of fugitive-making that run through her mind.”
In perhaps my favorite poem from the collection, “My Father Teaches Me How to Slip Away,” Priest’s attention to this movement of history is no more evident. When the speaker recalls being taken from her mother and introduced to her father, she describes coming face to face with not only a man, but the ontological inheritance of Blackness embodied:
When we steal past the safe
That holds the revolver wrapped in a tea towel,
My free fist turns like a wrench
In my eye—& then the heavy oak door
Whispered open by the sparkles of my father’s knuckles
& then my mother pushing me onto the night
“Your father, this is your father”—before me, a
My horse mind flickers—
When I step into him & look back at my mother, she
Is on the other side.
In many ways, Horsepower is a poetic excavation of the space between escape as a noun and escape as a verb: the space between leaving home and its world behind and discovering that something like a free Black life is necessarily fugitive, always on the run.
And historically rich, singing with color and sweetly singed by her rare knack for sensorial description, these poems announce Joy Priest as a poet moved by the fragility and urgency of revolution on the page.
Horsepower, selected by U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey as the 2019 winner of the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, Joy Priest’s debut collection. You can purchase the text here.