HORSEPOWER, a University of Pittsburgh Press poetry collection by Joy Priest, reviewed by Esteban Rodríguez

Horsepower, by Joy Priest. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, September 2020. 68 pages. $17.00, paper.

Every state carries with it certain perceptions that often gloss over the nuances of what it has to offer. Coming from Texas, the stereotypes range anywhere from wearing boots, riding horses, to the expectation that everything must be larger. Kentucky undoubtedly has its share of generalizations, but when you encounter a poet like Joy Priest, a poet whose attention to detail and lyrical keenness captives us page after page, there is no doubt that you are going beyond the surface of lazy depictions and entering into the realm of authenticity and truth.

Horsepower is composed of narratives that place the speaker at the center of an ever-changing world, one that is both promising and callous. In the proem “Horsepower,” we see the way in which innocence is shed to reveal a new reality. While the speaker’s father is on the opposite side of the city with her “baby brother” and his “new wife,” she is acknowledging the totality of her own environment:

But all I know for now
is the grandfather I live with
the white one,
the only one I will meet,
& I know my mother, who I can hear now, roaring
home from work in her muscle car.

& wait—
I know the horses,

the horses & their restless minds.

The muscle car embodies the mother’s freedom and the way she cannot be bound by conventional constraints, while the “restless minds” of the horses, which live just beyond the fence, mirror the mind of the speaker. She recognizes that people are not meant to remain idle for long, and although she cannot yet put into words what this means, she knows the feeling undoubtedly is hers to own.

When the speaker does find the freedom she longed for, she understands how fortunate she is to have gained it. Others, whether they be family or friends, are still bound to the expectations they were raised believing they must fulfill, and this extends to the creatures that inhabit the landscape, many of which can’t break from their fate. In “Elegy for Kentucky,” the speaker reflects on the filly that she encounters in the neighborhood where she’s living:

Nowhere to drive, night upon night
that summer, but back

to the cokey couple I was crashing with
in their 26-year habit. On the way there

the same horse always dying at the curve
before I turned, like a kitschy disco ball,

onto their street, name I can’t recall.
There she lay toppled like a toy figurine.

Calm but huffing, a laboring machine
making steam, though the cold air

belonged to June, is grief. A filly
done before becoming a mother, great belly

black & wide as all surrender
& that magnificent face still against the grass

waiting for the end.

Even before the filly has a chance to become a mother or to live out her life, she has had to “surrender,” because ultimately, despite the beauty that a horse like her has been graced with, she has become bored with what she was bred for and has succumbed to life in a corral. Of course, this might be only one instance of the ways in which captivity deprives opportunity, but Priest’s concern with this life, even if it’s an animal, reminds us that we must sometimes take a backseat to the tragedies that are happening around us and learn from them.

Although Kentucky might be the focal point for most of the collection, Priest doesn’t shy away from highlighting the difficulties plaguing the United States, especially when it concerns racial injustice and violence. “No Country For Black Boys” is spoken in two voices, one that warns black people of the way others will perceive their body and their movements, and the other, spoken by a white person, that believes they are carrying out justice on the “assholes / [who] always get away.” Because of the latter sentiments, both “home” and “heart” is “suspended over a hallow point” for people of color, and sometimes surviving means taking extra steps to ensure a safety that still isn’t guaranteed. But Horsepower is a collection of survival, of seeing the disparities, injustices, and the constraints that inundate our immediate world and the world at large and facing them head on.

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.

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Esteban Rodríguez is the author of two poetry collections, (Dis)placement (Skull + Wind Press, 2020) and Dusk & Dust (Hub City Press, 2019), and the micro-chapbook Soledad (Ghost City Press, 2019). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, ShenandoahThe Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives with his family and teaches in Austin, Texas.

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