Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, September 2020, $17
In her debut poetry collection, Horsepower, Joy Priest builds her own mythos out of a wound dripping with incredible language, resilience, and self-reimagining. The collection, which won the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, offers a stunning ride through experiences of dislocation, racism, and family lineage in the American South.
As a New Orleanian, I draw many parallels between Priest’s world and the one that surrounds me, particularly between the Churchill Downs race track in Louisville, Kentucky that heavily features in Priest’s work and the still-active Fair Grounds of New Orleans. As a white woman, I cannot directly or personally relate to Priest’s experience as a black woman in these divisive environments, yet in reading Priest’s references to history and ongoing systemic racism, I thought of the continued struggles and racial divides in New Orleans.
Like the three-act structure seen in motion pictures and narrative fiction, Horsepower’s cinematic text is split into three acts and features references to several films. The poem “Ode to Hushpuppy,” which references the film Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)—shot on an island roughly 80 miles southwest of New Orleans—inherently links these sites not only through location but also through mysticism, lineage, and a shared black experience. In parallel with the film’s young protagonist, the speaker in “Ode to Hushpuppy” has her own fractured relationship with her father. Here, the speaker is constantly forced to survive an unprotected and unendurable landscape built exclusively for drowning:
squeak. & you sing
two kinds of people:
your daddy & you:
those who stay
& those who escape
the heel. (39)
Reading these lines in Louisiana evokes the constant storm surges and record-breaking hurricane seasons. But the larger context extends far beyond that. In these lines, we encounter a sink-or-swim motif as well as this shattering of a self-reliant, bootstrap-like myth as reflected by the “you” placed on its own away from “your daddy &.” Formulaically, “escape” is also out of reach, closely followed by “the heel,” as though the idea of escape itself is impossible or stands to be crushed at any moment. Throughout much of this poem and the book itself, recurring language and images of violence reflect the ways systems of racism and sexism set the parameters for one’s shaping of the self. Priest skillfully uses form, image, and sound to sonically mirror this shaping. The choice to use boot-shaped Louisiana for the backdrop of this particular poem might also suggest that such locations can only crush or stomp out the magic and hope that reside in certain bodies, forcing the trapped to adapt in violent, flimsy surroundings.
say here & it sound
like a heel shoved
down a throat.
a horse hitched. guttural. (37)
Here, the speaker tries to utter a new self and location into being to break free from this cycle of violence and is immediately choked. She can only speak through her horse in “guttural” bursts against the metaphorical yokes of language and location. This poem uses the horse and non-human world as images to depict various stages of being tamed, broken, and corralled, as reflective of the speaker’s constant displacement throughout the book within the white supremacist American machine.
Like the racehorses of Churchill Downs, she is perpetually confined to a circuit, which takes and takes and takes but never gives back, never offers a moment of respite. In the introductory poem, “Horsepower,” the speaker says, “they work the loop of that circular mile / making everyone’s living / except their own” (xi)… “I know the horses, / the horses & their restless minds” (xii). While the circuitry of the racetrack, or systemic racism, functions to deny interiority, Priest’s speaker “knows” “their restless minds” and directs her poetry inward.
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. Priest’s emphasis on the interior brings to mind James Baldwin’s quote from Nobody Knows My Name that “the interior life is a real life.” Priest’s speaker struggles to reform herself through environmental mechanisms in a country where the act of naming seems to function as a barrier, highlighting fragments of the self like shards of a mirror that can be held individually but never together at the same time. It becomes clear in “My Father Teaches Me How to Slip Away” that respite is merely a temporal façade—a learned conjuration she stands to inherit:
a bowl of blinking lights above us. Perfect
for my father—a physicist,
an airplane mechanic, a veteran
of life—a Friday night fifth on his lips. A ritual:
It’s been this way since I was a little girl:
He’s doing the talking, I’m taking notes
on invisibility. (9)
Priest builds a string of sound through the assonance of the short “i” from “fifth” to “invisibility.” This sonic tether pulls through the illusion the speaker’s father presents and helps her locate power in naming and mapping a new self through one’s surroundings. The speaker practices observation, deep listening, and notes that “he [the father] sees the world through us,” and “knows the huge, abstract names / for emotions, when it comes to plants, / but not his own self” (35). Priest uses the lyric to follow these observations of the father to axioms on interiority acknowledging that “every piece / of advice is one the giver followed to his own / bitterness” (7).
In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the denizens of Bathtub distrust and reject the outside world, running toward selfhood and a reality of their own making. Like Priest, who mediates her telling of the world through horses, the film shows the world not only through the protagonist’s perspective but also through these mythological, boar-like beasts. Those beasts signal the impending death of Hushpuppy’s father much like Priest’s horses appear as portents in relation to her disparate family life and identity. As with the film, the speaker’s father teaches her that disappearing is another mode of survival, and this is often signified in her work through flickering illusions and spectral humans and horses that blur lines between the mythic and the real. Her ceaseless shift and dislocation are reflected by the text’s repeated yet ephemeral imagery of horses:
& then my mother is pushing me onto the night porch saying,
“Your father, this is your father”—before me, a mirror—
My horse mind flickers—
When I step into him & look back at my mother, she
Is on the other side. (33)
Throughout the poem, Priest’s employment of em dashes creates a physical mirror on the page—one that simultaneously separates her from and welds her to her father, her white mother, and herself. This also represents a fractured identity and the two worlds her speaker straddles. This is reflected by the horse, which stands alone in its own line, trapped within a set of em dashes. The speaker outgrows the confines of her environment and the boundaries laid out for her by others.
In the concluding poem of the collection, “Pegasus,” the speaker transforms from restrained racehorse to flying pegasus, finally free to find new spaces in a form that can hold everything she is all at once.
Like a betting ticket. There
A horse greets me. But I see it’s only
a Gallopalooza, stationary
As all the others scattered
Across the city. I move on. Can’t go home
And later, this imagistic movement carries us to these three lines:
When you release your wings
They swing as wide as a gate
& the air lifts the snakes from my shoulders (65)
The speaker discards her confines, finally allowing herself to take up fugitive space in a world comprised of many contradictions and oppositions—black and white, father and mother, parent and child, man and woman, acceptance and rejection, stagnation and movement, violence and love, body and mind, wild and tame, natural and technological. The speaker, “Never a child with other children” (29), transforms herself into something ‘other.’ Once incapable of straddling two places at once— belonging nowhere and everywhere—she carves out a universe for herself.
New Orleans straddles this diaspora between nowhere and everywhere, particularly with regard to black communities in the Lower 9th Ward and other parts of the city that have been and continue to be hit particularly hard by natural disasters. As a white resident of New Orleans, one who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I have spent a lifetime bearing witness to the gulf between the treatment of black communities and white. This includes areas that have been strategically flooded to save others, the gentrification of neighborhoods under the guise of mixed-income-level housing during recovery efforts, the homage to the confederacy in statues and the naming of major streets, the erasure of historical massacres, and the appropriation and consumerism of black/creole culture by white New Orleanians and tourists alike. The storm further emphasized these existing disparities to the rest of the world through the barring of black citizens from crossing over the Crescent City Connection by police, through the media’s depiction of black looters as white police officers stole goods from retail stores with impunity, through military dispersal to control these citizens instead of providing immediate aid and rescue, through the juxtaposing of the term “refugees” with footage of black citizens.
Reading Priest's book speaks to the impact this systemic mistreatment and displacement can have, not only on the level of infrastructure but on interiority. As a white woman, I know that there are even further layers to Priest's experience that I have failed to recognize or capture here. Still, I am left enriched by Priest’s nuanced craft and by how her complicated poetics of the self speak to the dispersals and fractures America creates within its own people, particularly in communities of color.
Priest’s work expertly gives voice and name to so many intersections of diaspora that pervade in the United States today, highlighting the need for spaces that allow people to cobble these fractured parts of the self back together as one. If we cannot find places that allow for this integration of self, Horsepower urgently implores us to fashion new planes of existence.
You can purchase a copy of Horsepower from the University of Pittsburgh Press in Print for $17.00. Also available in Kindle and Nook.
Liz McGehee is a full-time editor, writer, and poet based in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is the author of the forthcoming chapbook Louisiana Alchemy (dancing girl press, Nov 2021), Associate Poetry Editor of GASHER Journal, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from the University of Colorado Boulder. A survivor of Hurricane Katrina, her creative work explores the trauma of natural disasters and womanhood through place and the New Orleans diaspora, appearing in literary journals such as New Delta Review, Cloud Rodeo, The Volta, The Thought Erotic, Pouch Magazine, Infection House, Up the River, and more. Currently, she works full time as a scientific editor and grantsman on research centered around cures for COVID-19 and neurodegenerative diseases.