Robert Eric Shoemaker: We Knew No Mortality

Review by Sarah Escue

(Acta publications, 2018)

“No miraculous vision swooped in to tell me who to be, and religion did not save me. This is not that kind of story.” In his stunning second collection, Shoemaker fights his way through the familiar thorns of memory and family history, while also admiring the puncture that brought him back home. As he untangles the roots of his family tree, plows and empty silos scatter through the fields of his rural, faithful hometown.

We Knew No Mortality is a map, a memory palace with landscapes extending from the dusty porches and tilled earth of the Bootheels of America, to the full-bellied valleys of Italy and the bitter cold skyline of Chicago. Shoemaker reminisces on his hometown and family, as they laughed, “carefree in the Kentucky breeze.” He memorializes the stories passed down and shared by his family. He meditates on unburying memory, which “is fluid, warping when we recall it, but the original neural pathways are still there, somewhere.”

We Know No Mortality is an attempt in distilling family memories and breaking open one’s heritage to better comprehend the collective cultural understanding. Shoemaker ruminates on his small town of Henderson, Kentucky, as well as other small towns across America—particularly their tendencies toward religious fanaticism, extreme conservatism, and xenophobia. However, the town’s smallness offers a space of stillness for reflection. After years of travel, Shoemaker revisits his home with a new perspective—with a better understanding of where he came from and where he wants to go.

Shoemaker writes about the memory of a shared spiritual home with a delicate and graceful hand, and he exalts the balance of light and shadow: “Everything is an omen. / Even the light.” He writes of small towns, familiar faces, and systematized ideals:

“The moon is bright in Godland, / But it don’t reach far…When you move away from a small town, you miss knowing people when you sight them, or sometimes by hearing a voice around the aisle in the grocery store. You miss the certainty of things like religion, politics, social etiquette— all things codified and staid that you no longer conform to.”

As he attempts to collage the past to retell his family’s multilayered history, Shoemaker reveals that you, reader, are the sum of our environments; you are a collage, a fractal, an assemblage, a mosaic of filaments, known and unknown. You, too, originate from mud and shared blood. Along this journey of rediscovery, Shoemaker encounters dirty habits, penguin-like nuns with slapping sticks, and old winding back roads. In a way, he resurrects his past and his longing for a now distant childhood of rolling and running in the bluegrass with bare feet.

We too experience a longing for home, a sanctuary filled with bluegrass and open ceilings. He tills memory and recites his dead; he sings hymns of “am” and “am nots”: “I am not an architect, / I am a song.” 

We Knew No Mortality is a memory quilt sewn with spells, floods, hymns, and pink wounds. It’s an attempt to remember, together; a ritual for individual and communal re-membering. It’s a plea to readers to, “Feel the earth move inside you. / Pray to become.” Shoemaker’s words shed to reveals themselves like a creature in crystallized grass-flats. This book is more than just a book. It’s a shared cigarette behind the boiler room. It’s a song for America-forgotten.