We Knew No Mortality

Featured in We Knew No Mortality: Memories of Our Spiritual Home. Curated by Sara Shoemaker.

“They knew the rain was coming; the shadow had fallen over Old Kuttawa months ago.”

We Knew No Mortality: Memories of Our Spiritual Home, released in March 2018 by Acta Publications, represents six years of writing and over 100 years of family history.

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We Knew No Mortality review at Something on Paper
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WKNM @ Acta Publications
Featured in We Knew No Mortality: Memories of Our Spiritual Home. Curated by Sara Shoemaker.

“We Knew No Mortality is a memory quilt sewn with spells, floods, and pink wounds. 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.”

— Sarah Escue, editor at The Adirondack Review

Featured in We Knew No Mortality: Memories of Our Spiritual Home. Curated by Sara Shoemaker.

“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.’

— Sarah Escue, for Something on Paper

“You are the sum of your environments,
and no more.
Be light as feathers
and full in the belly,
put your hand into yourself and stir—
can you pull yourself out?”

“As the first section of We Knew No Mortality suggests, in these poems, at once elegant and welcoming, there is a recurring theme of the latent emerging, the ghost manifesting. Memory—inherited and personal—overlays the present, Jesus returns to wash us white as snow, capitalism reaches its culmination and fails. But latent potential and promise also surface and are realized, or at least the reader hopes for this. And hope matters, as any tender boy from a small town will tell you. The poems travel in a steady pace from Henderson, Kentucky, to Rome, to Chicago, and all the while we are reminded by these varied yet centered poems of how home is always present, even as the details of one’s life shift.”

— J’Lyn Chapman, author of Beastlife

Featured in We Knew No Mortality: Memories of Our Spiritual Home. Curated by Sara Shoemaker.

“In We Knew No Mortality, Robert Eric Shoemaker travels back to his “ole Kentucky” town with Wally World and walks down memory lane. Here, family yarns of money buried in fruit jars and crucifixes sacrificed to storms coexist with a drug trip, retreat to Italy, and return to a sanctified self. With compassion and insight, Shoemaker considers his heritage and landscape, the “comfort and problems peculiar to the rural,” and the nature of spiritual homecoming. He writes: “I wipe my face in the mud. I can see my reflection.” Read this book and follow his lead.”

— Gabrielle Civil, author of Swallow the Fish

“This gifted poet reverently unwinds the tight scroll that is like the tree trunk of a family tree, unrolling this sacred scroll that reveals living map, hymnal, inheritance of memory. Opening and opening to find the deep core “in a solace of pine,” as mythic charms like old family story go chiming through the blood in song. Such spells of dry earth into songs of water! The family story Shoemaker is remembering, is in his blood that is like a song in the body, “a spark that fell out of a bonfire.” Not within the cage of a photograph can one locate the nature of self; rather, here is the breathtaking primer for reading one’s history by “earth-light”: “I wipe my face in the mud. I can see my reflection.” It is in the fountain erected in his hometown where Shoemaker will frolic at the source: “I remember this fountain / Going up / The first time / And playing in it.” This collection is meant to be sung! In the root dreams of the tree that was and the tree that is still becoming, and down deeper still, in the “stream beneath the water,” the underground waterfall of family music where it issues forth from the tap of a cistern, the underground reservoir concocting legends of love and sorrow—I shall never tire of visiting this sacred place. In my very favorite poem, I hear in the flood of folk song the voice of the immortal family, from family grove to groves of antiquity, come to serve us mirth, lullaby, and compassion: “You’re swimming with me in Kentucky / as I drown in the sediment of an ancient suburb. / I am drowning while you fight through bluegrasses. / I am drowning when you get to my side, breathlessly. / You gather me in your arms.”

— Jessica Savitz, author of Hunting is Painting

Featured in We Knew No Mortality: Memories of Our Spiritual Home. Curated by Sara Shoemaker.

“Basketball dreams, / Or grander, even, / Leavin’ plows for town, / leavin’ empty silos,” Shoemaker closes the poem titled “Corn Festival, 2015” in a tone characteristic of We Knew No Mortality. There are blues in the grass of this Kentucky landscape, and there are blues in the speaker’s throat when he leaves it. An “outsider, an outlier,” he becomes strange to himself in pursuit of grand dreams, even as those left behind become clearer with distance, including Sammie-Jo, presiding from her couch throne, and Carl-Ra, burying fruit jars full of money. Memory inhabits the present in these poems, even as it suggests a new way to exist in it.”

— Amy Wright, author of Cracker Sonnets and Everything in the Universe, Nonfiction Editor, Zone 3 Press

“but my soul grew up on Graham Hill,
my feet treading snakes in the grasses so flaming.”


If Once You Were German

If once you were German, you are now my piece of history.
You floated in the streets of Berlin before it became a nouveau-riche haven,
and you threw hollowed out bricks
into real glass windows
and broke the rules.
You tell me how fragile your childhood experience
how happily you called out to Father Christmas from the porch stoop
as Father Schweizer crept sideways with
his tar-black boots and cheap presents.
You wrinkle your eyebrows, your whole face wrinkles,
pursing up like a very sage walrus with yellowed tusks and soft skin,
and you say it again, how fragile your childhood,
when you walked onstage and dropped the armful of plates.

If once you were my heroine, you are now fine China on a shelf
not an exotic land none of us have ever seen—
inside a lacquered cabinet, unable to collect dust, as is natural.
I wonder what it would be like to polish your broken tusks, lather up that pruned face,
and take you out for one more whirl about the town, hot-and-scanty, we!
Would you remember me
as my Volkswagen turned about the familiar streets where once
in dreams you sauntered?
Once you were historical, but now we are a history
as we float through the streets of Godland: one hand on a cane, one hand on the earth.

Postface as Memory

I never imagined, as a quietly rebellious child, that I would one day write a ‘quasi-defense’ of small-town America, using Henderson as an example.

Design by Wayne Yandell; Photography by Sara Shoemaker

We have dragged Christmas trees through the mud with a mule team (wondering, could an 8th grader today do that?); drilled holes in trees to add branches decorated with bulbs or popcorn-and-cranberry strings; we’ve had pink aluminum trees with rotisserie lights, or Douglas Firs; we have revealed the tree with childlike delight, or left the White Room open for visitors; we live, here or there or Anywhere; we retain memory, in our blood, our mind.