The Fierce Bums of Doo-Wop by Amber Atiya

The Fierce Bums of Doo-Wopthe fierce bums of doo-wop
by Amber Atiya
Argos Books, 2014

“This is a language, therefore, of New York.”
— oppen, of being numerous


to encounter every book like a stranger, a refugee in a strange land
to speak its language insofar as the book is in a kind of english and a kind of english is my language

blue light, black blue light
light reflecting off the gloss of the name on the book
all lowercase, fine threads in the weave, the stitch in the page, the knot in ‘assimilation’


i’m turning the book in my hands because it demands to be turned

it’s light in my hands and fits, some pages changing axes

i tilt it over on its side because the lines start at the bottom of the page,
they start at the bottom and grow up, climb up towards the top of the page,
thin spokes, tall grasses where horizons should be

“Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,”


i’m sounding it out now, folding my mind-tongue over and over because my language is garbled, it always has been

“to mrs cloritha, professional crier for dilroy’s funeral parlor (stuffed the dead fulla who knows, once saw some geezer’s toupee slid back like a yarmulke, a woman’s wig bangs in her hear…

…to cuban ruben across the hall who loved tongue & chuck D…”


it’s like i’m watching a film nostalgic for a time i’ve never known in a city i once wanted to call home and now i get to live in

“sometimes my sister’s hand
pushes rooks across a board
in union square.
college students, yuppie couples
conspire against her.
my sister says checkmate
makes her feel invincible.”

i’m identifying with the gentrifiers, conspirers, both side-eyeing and side-stepping it

as reader now a stranger to myself (or maybe too familiar)


in “and so it goes” we’re standing in a pa line, in fur and all

“the uninitiated will think i mean a state famous for cheese-steaks, refuge for tri-state felons fleein the law.”

here pa stands for the public assistance line i’ve never brought myself to stand in

as reader now a stranger to the speaker (and maybe too estranged)


finally american i feel prepared to answer any questions you may have

Do you speak English as a second language? i’m hungry

If yes please list first language: xoxo”


i’m turning these voices over in my head, a haunting, a reconciliation with my foster mother country

bums, sisters, mamas, papis, dearly departed join us there


this is the longest page in the book, a folded side to keep the page the same shape as the others

page 31 even marks its creases, white-out folds or etchings cut into the words, a love letter you keep in your pocket for too long, other text breaks in, the edge of a prism that interrupts light, responsible for the effect, it altars it

“Thank you for saying YES to life’s brief but tender work.”

i can make out the words through the creases, thank amber for same


this amid protests across the states

in baltimore, ferguson, nyc,

marilyn mosby, maryland state attorney, just said:

“To the people of Baltimore: I heard your call for ‘no justice no peace’,”
“I will seek justice on your behalf.”
“This is a moment. This is your moment,”
“Let’s ensure that we have peaceful and productive rallies that will develop structural and systemic changes for generations to come. You’re at the forefront of this cause. And as young people, our time is now.”

what is the space of poetry in these times?


in amber’s work it strikes me as celebration first and foremost, the language is lush and jubilant, fragrant and flagrant, a language of new york
it’s always seemed to me a city of multitudes, of being numerous, a festival of singularities

but amber’s language also offers a space for reflection, perhaps a mirror in which we can see ourselves complicit in cycles of poverty, attitudes of capitalism and self-regard

secondly, but no less importantly, amber’s poetry bears witness, does to english with a capital E what celan once did, but not as sadist, as cathy park hong writes in her essay “against witness” published this month at the poetry foundation:

“Celan was a sadist with the German language, shredding it down to find the kernel, and from those shreds, he created a third language.”

amber is no sadist i’d say, she’s a benevolent god, an alchemist, not shredding english down but restoring to it its lost vibrancy, its many names, inventive slang

i’d even say this is no 3rd language, it’s english through and through, the english i remember learning in ’91, a tongue inviting and riveting


for me poetry has always been a space for language play, code switching, glitch and rupture

i suture my identity there, in the slips between the language i come from and the english i was raised with

how much do we have to forget to keep going, keep climbing
how much of ourselves do we leave at the pa line, still in fur, still queer, still strangers in some way, who are we talking to now and how does that change how we talk

in the final poem, “when the end is near”, amber re-members all of it, asserts herself as the speaker for years to come, a resistance of the page, on the streets, in the mouth:

“& when the end
is near, i hope
to be with you

hope to debunk
the myth
of sweet dirt

to be
the only dyke
no spell

can zombie
no root
can raise”


last year at montana ray’s salon in brooklyn i had the pleasure of hearing amber atiya read some of these pieces

at the time i was also thinking through poetry about socioeconomic class, how we talk about poverty in this country, and how to do it without glamorizing it, propagating the “myth of sweet dirt”

amber read with honesty and sincerity, with wit and defiance, culling from primary documents like disability forms and restraining orders, seeing the poetry in these, or more seeing the way they interact with language which is poetry

i considered the possibility that maybe we don’t have to change ourselves or who we were here, that language folds in over itself, turns like identity, that really all our hardships and linguistic quirks come together and quite beautifully and maybe idealistically or naively we appear familiar to ourselves then to each other

surrounded by writer women i imagined myself in a particular moment, at an epicenter of poetry, at home in this community of women

it was an honor to have been among them, listening


Amber AtiyaAmber Atiya is the author of the chapbook the fierce bums of doo-wop. Her work has appeared recently in Bone BouquetThe Atlas ReviewNepantla: A Journal of Queer Poets of ColorBoston Review, and Black Renaissance Noire. A proud native Brooklynite, she is the recipient of a Poets House Emerging Poets Fellowship and is a member of a women’s writing group celebrating 13 years this spring. Visit her website here.

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