What Sparks Poetry

Books We’ve Loved

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In Books We’ve Loved, we’ve asked our editorial board members and select guest editors to reflect on a book that has been particularly meaningful to them in the last year, with the intention of creating a list of book recommendations for our valued readers.

Amaud Jamaul Johnson on Joy Priest’s Horsepower

I could hear Joy Priest’s debut collection, Horsepower, approaching like one of those bass-heavy, turtle-waxed ’64 Chevy Impalas that prowled my neighborhood in the mid-1980s, Zapp or Shirley Murdock or Parliament Funkadelic thumping through a detachable cassette deck. Priest’s poetic voice has metal, or I should say it’s metal-flaked because the reflections here are both intimate and otherworldly. The sounds sparkle. But when a poet’s first romance is a 1988 Cutlass Supreme Classic, she grows less concerned with fuel economy and would never consider “polish” a pejorative term. Her poetic line stretches out like a horizon barely visible over the steering wheel. Of course, if you’ve never burned a tank of gas, cross-hatching city streets on a late spring Sunday afternoon, braiding the voices of Al Green or Smokey Robinson through the ribbons of heat rising from the asphalt, this book is an invitation to joyride.

When I think about place and memory, I attach a soundtrack. Certain songs can resurrect the dead and lost buildings become unburned. Priest feels like kin. She understands what it means to make an image sing, and reading these poems, I feel that I’m almost closing my eyes, leaning closer to the page, listening to the landscape. Kentucky is neither Northern nor Southern, it’s nowhere and everywhere, as if historically Appalachia is like living on the razor’s edge, as if one is literally straddling the color line. Priest’s Louisville is both rural and urban, full of shadows and shot through with light. Note the physicality of these poems, how one immediately considers the body to process strength and fragility, how the senses stage acts of transcendence and betrayal. As in the closing lines of the elegy, “Dear Aunt Louise, Muh”:

        Before I left that morning, I plucked a chin hair, sprouted
                overnight. Felt
        The heel
        Of your palm hit my shoulder
        Like a tambourine.

Navigating these line breaks is like turning corners at different speeds. As readers, our understanding of gravity fluctuates. We adjust our center. Riding shotgun, we feel jerked or jostled until we learn to trust who’s driving. And if we are not speeding along with the speaker, we are dared to witness a spectacle: “from a sidewalk-/ turned-sideline on West Broadway,/ I catch my beloved,/…/ leading a cortege of Chevelles through the chaos/ of revelers.” This understanding of pageantry extends from the cultural history of the Kentucky Derby, but Priest resists turning Black bodies into show ponies. Rather, Churchill Downs is a backdrop, casting shadows as dark as illegally tinted windows.

Writing Prompt

Johnson describes Priest’s book in terms of a car ride. Write a poem about a period of your life condensed into a single car ride.

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Amaud Jamaul Johnson

Amaud Jamaul Johnson

Amaud Jamaul Johnson is author of three poetry collections, Imperial Liquor, Darktown Follies, and Red Summer. His honors include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a MacDowell Fellowship, the Dorset Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the Edna Muendt Poetry Award, and a Pushcart Prize. His poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Callaloo, Kenyon Review, Best American Poetry, The Southern Review, Narrative Magazine, Harvard Review, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. His most recent collection was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2021 UNT Rilke Prize.