American Honey

Joy Priest

“let your freedom build slow like the death of a star across the years . . .”

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 Muskogee. Your long-built dread
dispersing like gas into a brilliantly black
Ozark sky. For once, you are a girl

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

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 the 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, swinging from its rafters. Death star.
It’s easier than you imagined—leaving behind your own
mother. Her ghost. Her meth. And now you can be a girl
on a back patio with three white men, & you can leave
with their money, egg suede cowboy hat adorning your dreads.

You swallowed the Mezcal worm of your fear.
Now you’re standing in the cowboy’s convertible, black
& flying in the camera’s frame. You’re leaving
with the get-away boy you found sparkling
in a K-mart parking lot. You’re keeping it alive—your girlhood,
the adrenaline, the novelty, the dying star that 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 be disarmed, 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 eye. Her tragic star.
Learn it all, girl, until what you’ve left behind is a brilliant black.


This poem first appeared in vol. 24, no. 2 (Summer 2018) and is also featured in Bounty Everlasting: Poetry from 25 Years of Southern Cultures.

Joy Priest is a writer from Louisville, Kentucky. She is the recipient of the 2016 Hurston/Wright Foundation’s College Writers’ Award, and has received support from the Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She is currently an MFA candidate at the University of South Carolina, where she teaches and serves as Senior Editor for Yemassee Journal. Her poetry and prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Callaloo, Third Coast, and The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, among others.
Header image: Miles from the Lightening, by Thomas Hawk, February 18, 2013, Flickr.com, CC BY-NC 2.0.

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