Poem of the Week | May 31, 2020

This week’s Poem of the Week is “Bus Shelters Are Graveyards” by Shamar Hill!

Shamar Hill, a Cave Canem Fellow, is the recipient of numerous awards including a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, and a scholarship from Fine Arts Work Center. He has been published or has work forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Washington Square Review, Day One, Southern Humanities Review, and Kenyon Review Online. He is working on a poetry collection, Photographs of an Imagined Childhood, and a memoir, In Defiance of All True Things. Shamar is the Director of Institutional Giving & Stewardship at the Academy of American Poets.


Bus Shelters Are Graveyards

13th July 1863 at 4 PM, an infuriated mob surrounded the premises of the Colored Orphan Asylum and 500 of them entered the house breaking down the door with axes. Burn the nigger’s nest they shouted.

It’s raining heavily like it was on that day in July
I walk to the New York Historical Society
I want to the see the card, I say
I tell the researcher when I first saw a photo
of the card, I thought it was a plaque
In a box labelled Miscellaneous
Inside a manila folder with 3 other items
A page from the National Magazine in 1853
A handwritten letter asking for money for riot damages
A letter signed by Anna Shotwell
& the remembrance card
You can take it out, the researcher says
I measure it and it’s only 5 3/4 x 2 3/4 inches
I want to laugh but don’t
It looks like a prayer card for a funeral
We have all sorts of stuff like this, she says
Ephemeral stuff, she says
I thank her for her help
Put the card back in its plastic sleeve
Close the manila folder
Walk out onto 77th & Central Park West
It is still raining heavily
Put my headphones on & listen
to Johnny Cash singing Hurt
He asks what have I become
but I hear what we have always been


Author’s Note

I’m drawn to 19th century American history, for more reasons than I can say here. After I read about the Civil War Draft riots in New York City, I was, for months, walking around the city in a daze. Every lamppost became a site to mourn and grieve a lynching from that day in July 1863. During my research, I found photos of what I thought was a plaque, a simple memorial placed on the building where the Colored Orphan Asylum used to be. I soon discovered that the New York Historical Society had the original plaque.When I spoke to the researcher she explained that it’s just a card. I remember taking the card out of the folder, holding it in my hand. Such a consequential moment in history, it’s memory, in many ways, hidden and relegated to a card. The poem tells the story after I asked for the card. I am certain what we mistakenly hear, in this case, the last line of the Johnny Cash cover of “Hurt,” speaks to what we are struggling with. It’s our thoughts seeping into our senses. So I heard the line as “What we have always been.” After I left the museum, I kept walking around the city in the pouring rain playing “Hurt” over and over. I played it for weeks while I worked on this poem. My experience of the song being in conversation with writing the poem helped me get at my truth, the pain, unspoken pain of so many deaths, so much destruction not being remembered in a meaningful way, as if it never happened.