John Leonard Nominations

Leonard Prize 2020: Horsepower

By Rebecca Morgan Frank

NBCC members: If you’d like to contribute a review of an eligible book for the 2020 Leonard Prize, write to NBCC board member Megan Labrise at Read the rest of the reviews here.

Horsepower by Joy Priest (Pitt Poetry Series)

The poems in Joy Priest’s debut collection, Horsepower, move with narrative grace while bursting with the clarity of song. “I know the horses/ the horses and their restless minds,” the speaker of the opening poem says—and this collection is fueled by that restlessness, whether speakers are fleeing in cars or learning how to disappear in plain sight.

The latter is one of the lessons the speaker learns from her father in “My Father Teaches Me–,” a series of poems that traces her relationship with her Black father, from whom she has been separated, since birth, by her racist white grandfather’s insistence and her white mother’s compliance. These are poems that get their heartbeat from the particulars: the catalyst for the speaker finally meeting her father is a chance meeting in a Hollywood Video, with the mother holding West Side Story in her hands as the daughter waits in the car. The girl’s “papaw” both sorts antique pennies with her and harbors a nightstick, a tool for his racist violence. The “sweetheart” who “raised a gun eye-level/at me on his front porch” in “Menace” is first described: “His family well-off–his daddy do Hollywood films/his skin a kind of pearl everyone wraps their fingers around/when they hear the news. He was ill, they say….”

Priest’s sharply-rendered characters come alive amidst her lyricism and alternately fierce and tender imagery. And the landmarks and dividing lines of Louisville, Kentucky are more than mere backdrop to these poems. (This is perhaps best unpacked in Allison Pitinii Davis’ review, which draws on literary mapping, over at The Bind.) The result is a powerful story of an individual, a family, a city, and a nation. 

This is a book that will endure, a collection built skillfully from poems that dig in through their precision and power. Selected by Natasha Trethewey as the winner of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Donald Hall Prize, Horsepower is one of 2020’s best debuts and a strong contender for the John Leonard Prize.