Horsepower

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.”

American Honey

It’s easier than you thought—leaving.
Only one night spent sleeping on your own
in a motel parking lot beneath the stars
of a summer Okolona. Your long-built dread
dispersing like gas into a brilliantly Black
Appalachian sky. For once, you are a girl

unmolested. You could do this: be a girl
without a home. Always gone. Always leaving
behind Strip Mall, U.S.A & the dark
green dumpster you raid for food, something to own
& the two kids no one will care for, the dread
that comes on when their father grips you. Sparkle,

let your freedom build slow like the death of a star
across the years. & when she calls for you—granddaughter
of Elvis, confederate flag bikini, voice you dread—
let the interstate’s roar swallow her sound. In your leaving
you see your country for the first time. Your very own
seeing. When he howls for you, your body is a silent, Black

barn, hidden in wild grass & your locs—pastoral, Black—
are ropes for him, swaying from its rafters. Dangling star.
It’s easier than you imagined—leaving behind your own
mother. Her daughter, her ghost. Now you can be a girl
on the back patio with three white men & you can leave
with their money, egg suede cowboy hat adorning your dreads.

You’ve swallowed the Mezcal worm of your fear.
Now you’re standing in the cowboy’s convertible, Black
wind at the edge of the camera’s frame. You’re leaving
with the get-away boy you found sparking
in a K-mart parking lot. You’re keeping it alive—your girlhood,
the adrenaline, the novelty, the dying star you own

a million miles away. You’re learning how to own
yourself, how to be 14-deep in a 12-seater without dread.
How to disarm. How to let it go when the white girl
from Florida says nigga again, how to be the only Black
girl among strangers. Dancing around a bonfire under the stars.
Singing out of the sunroof down the interstate. Leaving

each new town you meet and own a memory in. Leaving
behind your mother’s dread-veined eyes. Fuse-less stars.
Learn it all, girl, until what you’ve left behind is a brilliant Black.

Winning Colors, 1988

I am born in the season of color-blocking and crack,
in the dawn of the Reagan era. The light and dark
shades of School Daze dance across movie screens.
A girl-horse wins the garland of roses.

554 blooms sprout red around her roan neck—shock
of black mane, haze of white down her nose.
Before her only two fillies clutch
the purse: Regret, 1915; Genuine Risk, 1980—

our names for girls.          When my birth horse
sets off out of the gate, a man and woman are working
their eleventh hour, twirling around the country club,
in the graceful choreography of weathered

servers. The woman, just 12 weeks pregnant,
not yet swollen with her dark choice. The man
taking bets and slurs alike out of the mouths
of the club’s members—rich and red-faced from

mint julips. When the woman hands off dirty glassware
to the man, father of her child, she giggles, smacks
him on his great black ass. When the girl comes down
the last stretch, she’s been out in front the whole race,

foal of Caro, violencing the dirt.
Expectations stamped into bets, at one point
her odds: 100-1. When her neck clears the wire
into the known world, the dark trumpet sounds.

Self-Portrait as Disney Princess

Never a child with other children. Dead summer, so dark
The bottoms of your feet look as if you’ve skipped through ash.

Your only friends the carpenter bees who bear perfectly round holes
In the carport’s rotting wood frame & dance in socked feet

Glittering with pollen, the hummingbirds hovering at your head
Like a crown. Your caretaker, old man, pallor of acceptable pedigree,

Sits chain-smoking inside the house, hacking phlegm
Into a Folgers can, thinking himself your savior.

You know only compassion. Watch the spiders curl
Into flowers of death, and, having observed them building their webs

Each dusk, preside over small funerals in admiration. Green
As the colonial Pippins piling beneath a neighbor’s Newtown.

C’mere little squirrel you say to the kit scooping it into your arms.
How could you know its mother will never touch it again?

My Father Teaches Me How to Slip Away

with Clarence Carter on
in the background




& there I sit, in my mother’s white Plymouth

Stolen in the open, under advisement of

This country’s laws & customs—I wait beneath

The Hollywood Video’s fanatic purple lights—

Their appliance buzz, sound of the spectral past,

Crackling in & out—I wait

For my mother to return, to go back

To the only home I’ve ever known—But inside

She’s been stunned-still at the sight of my father,

Possibly a mirage—I must’ve been

Asking for him, begging, but she had no address

No number to call—This moment, pure chance, a warp

In the spinning wax come back around—her mind skipping

As she stands before him with West Side Story in hand,

Then speaks, finally, to tell him I am out in the car—

& that night my father will tell his wife I exist

& that night he’ll make it to my grandfather’s house

With this declaration on his lips, he’ll try even again

After being turned away for seven years

By a many-chambered gun

—& this time when he arrives, somehow

My mother knows he is there

Waiting in the outer space air of October—

This time a window is open & ash is falling

From his cigarette behind the barbecue pit

Where he crouches just as the nightmare curls

Back from my skin like smoke—

This time my grandfather is unaware,

Bound to his makeshift couch-bed by malignancy,

When my mother pulls me through the cone of light cast

From his living room & toward my Black life—

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 sparkle of my father’s knuckles

& then my mother 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.