A Derby Winner at the Talbot County Free Library
by Bill Peak
I boarded the plane with my usual care. As we were flying east to
west, Baltimore to Louisville, I knew the sun would blind anyone
trying to look out the windows on the plane's port side, so I chose a
window seat on the starboard side, way back at the rear of the plane.
I'm not afraid of heights, so I like to look out during a flight, but
I am afraid of violent death, so I always sit at the rear of the plane
on the off chance I might survive any unexpected nose-dives into
The plane filled up, as they all always do, front to back, and, for a
while, I thought I might have an empty seat beside me all the way
home. But, as the last group of boarders made their way haltingly
down the aisle, a large African American gentleman threw his carry-on
into the bin overhead, bent his head beneath that unforgiving mass,
and, leading with shoulders and back, began to work his considerable
size into the tiny space Southwest allots each of its passengers.
Before he completed the maneuver, I tossed out my usual ice-breaker:
“I'm sorry, sir, I'm saving this seat for the next pretty girl to come
down the aisle.” Most men are momentarily taken aback when I say
this, then they chuckle and settle into their seat. But this fellow
didn't miss a beat. “Well you're in luck,” he said, wedging himself
in place, “you got ugly old me instead.” I had the feeling I was
going to like this guy.
And I did. Turned out he had trained in the military as some sort of
aeronautical engineer, and, a civilian now, he did consulting work for
the government. Normally, after the niceties are observed, I don't
talk much to my seat mates on a plane, preferring to study the
topography of cloud and land passing below, but an hour into our
flight, instead of getting a stiff neck from watching out the window
on my right, I realized I was getting one from listening to all the
fascinating engineering stuff pouring out of the fellow on my left.
Somewhere along the line I shared a little information about myself as
well, and when he found out I was a writer, the man told me his
daughter was a poet. I smiled politely. By this point in my life
I've known any number of people who claim to be poets and, sadly, few
who actually are. But in the spirit of all the entertainment I had
received from his side of the fuselage, I gave him my card and told
him I'd love to read some of his daughter's poetry someday.
Not long after that, I began an email correspondence with
the man's daughter, a young woman named Joy Priest, and,
not long after that, she casually mentioned that her first
book of poetry, Horsepower, would be coming out shortly and
that it had already won The Donald Hall Prize for Poetry.
Now it was my turn to be taken aback. The Donald Hall
Prize constitutes one of the few poetry prizes “greater
than which”—as my grandmother used to say—“there is no
whicher.” And what was so unexpected and refreshing about
the news of this award was that it was delivered in such an
offhand manner. I honestly believe the young woman hadn't
a clue just how remarkable a feat she had accomplished.
With her first book!
That plane ride with Joy's father took place almost two years ago. As
bad luck would have it, just as her book was about to come out,
Covid-19 struck and its publication was delayed. I didn't receive my
pre-ordered copy of Horsepower from Amazon till sometime in October,
and I've only just finished reading it. But oh my goodness is this
young lady a poet!
I won't kid you, the poems in Horsepower tell a sad, difficult story.
Joy is the daughter of a black man and a white woman. Growing up in
the South, literally in the shadow of Churchill Downs' twin spires,
she lived out her childhood in her mother's home, forever avoiding the
disapproving stares of her maternal grandfather—an unabashed bigot.
She was told almost nothing of her real father, didn't even meet the
man I met on the plane till she was already in her teens.
I know, it sounds like something out of Faulkner, but unlike
Faulkner's tales, Joy's poetry, mysteriously enough, manages to lift
the heart. I've thought about this and I believe it may be because,
despite the story they tell, despite all that was hidden and taken
from her, Joy's poems remain unrelentingly beautiful. Reading them
gave me hope. If my home, poor benighted Kentucky, can still produce
something as radiant and wise as the aptly named Joy Priest, then who
knows what wonders humanity might yet achieve.
I loved Horsepower so much I donated my copy of it to the Talbot
County Free Library. I want everyone to get to read this book. You
can watch an interview I taped with Joy for The Talbot Spy and the
library at https://talbotspy.org/the-library-guy-donald-hall-award-winning-poet-joy-priest/. If you like it and decide to read the book, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would very much like to know what you think.