Joy Priest’s Horsepower

Chet’la Sebree

There are writers you know and writers you know. Some of the writers you know because you navigated an MFA together or bonded over meals at a residency. Other writers you know from a nexus of people with whom you are connected through one-off encounters at conferences and readings or—commonly, in our increasingly digital and remote world—through the internet.

            I cannot remember how I became acquainted with 2021 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship recipient Joy Priest and her work—perhaps through our mutual connections, perhaps through reading her work in Virginia Quarterly Review or Wildness. I don’t know. But I do know I had been eagerly awaiting the release of her debut poetry collection Horsepower, selected by Pulitzer Prize winner and former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey as the winner of the 2019 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry. What I also know is that the book did not disappoint—gripping me in a way that made me want to know her and her work more.

            Horsepower is a propulsive collection that takes us into the complicated hearts of people we love as it navigates not only the speaker’s community in Kentucky but also larger conversations surrounding race, class, gender, and girlhood. The collection feels timely. To say that, however, almost feels like I’m selling it short, as this collection also feels as though it will withstand the test of time. There is an endurance not just tethered to the force of horses that populates the book or the enduring reality of racism in our country, but in Priest’s language and formal attention. As I arrived at the collection’s closing poem “Pegasus”—wherein the speaker stands nose to nose with the mythical creature seemingly prepared for takeoff—I found myself wanting to stay on the ground a little longer in these poems whose rich textures and lush Louisville landscapes make me ache.

            In “Junker,” Priest writes, “Nostalgia is a tease / like honeysuckle. The scent / never lasts”—an apt description for how we try to hold tight to our skittering memories of the past. Priest, however, is able to sustain that scent throughout the collection, making me feel at home in a region of the country that is foreign to me. I was entrenched in the speaker’s visceral memories of the streets and smells of a personal history. Even still, I felt their wispiness, felt how at any moment the threads of the past could come undone and leave me hungering for them. Horsepower is “obsessed with / What’s phantom,” as Priest writes in “The Payphone.”

            As previously mentioned, I’m drawn into the collection not just by the conversations but by Priest’s craft. I am drawn in by the book’s intricacies and woven structure. On my most recent read, I was delighted by the different forms of “spark” (“sparks,” “sparkle,” “sparking”) which appear across Horsepower’s sections and the pollen that pollenates different moments. These reemergences feel like little Easter eggs tying together the larger narrative arc. They reveal an intentionality and craft on both macro and micro levels, in the arc and in the language. Although the book is laden with a grief, an ache, a longing, I am constantly delighted by the beauty of the language, by how “the skunk pulled back / to its muscles” (“Junker”) resonates as much for me as a halo of hummingbirds in “Self-Portrait as Disney Princess.”

            The craft in this book is immediately apparent with “American Honey,” which opens the first section and takes the form of an inventive sestina. I mean, the sestina form itself is a complicated patchwork consisting of six six-line stanzas—in which the last word of each line of the first stanza repeats in a varying order as the last word in each line in each of the subsequent five stanzas—followed by a three-line stanza, which features all six words as well. Priest takes it a step further to augment some of the words along the way—allowing “star” to become “sparkle” and “sparking” and allowing “girl” to be “girlhood” and also “granddaughter.” This poem immediately follows the lobby poem—which comes before the first section and opens the collection—which also happens to be the title poem. Often, title poems are buried somewhere deep in the body of a book, reminding us of its weight, of what we’ve done to arrive at that poem. For me, there is a confidence and immediate intimacy achieved by Priest’s decision to have “Horsepower” appear first, as she revs her engine and lets us in.

            The collection as a whole embodies what Priest writes in “Girl 6”; it occupies “an intense state of longing punctuated by quick sparks of contentment.” As the book looks back on the complexities of a family, of a community, of a life, there is a tenderness coupled with an enviable candor. As a reader, I feel the urge to run toward and away from the “West Coast sound bubbling into a night otherwise country & silent” (“Ghost Ride”). I, too, feel the dichotomy of “I’m leaving / & being left” (“Pegasus”).

            Horsepower is thoughtfully wrought and compelling. Although I felt the “splitting” and “coming apart” Priest writes about in “Pegasus,” I felt a hopefulness at the end of this collection. And even though I wanted to stay with Horsepower, with Priest, with the speaker a little longer, I, alongside the speaker and Pegasus, felt the power of flight.

Chet’la Sebree is the author of Field Study, winner of the 2020 James Laughlin Prize,and Mistress, which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. She is the director of the Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts and an assistant professor at Bucknell University. For her work, she has received fellowships and awards from the Academy of American Poets, Hedgebrook, MacDowell, and Yaddo. Her work has recently appeared in Dr. Ibram X. Kendi & Dr. Keisha N. Blain’s Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019.

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