Review: Robert Isenberg’s Wander

Robert Isenberg
Six Gallery Press

Review by Randolph Pfaff

Chronicling more than a decade of travel, observation, and reflection, Robert Isenberg’s Wander is a Song of the Open Road for a world in flux. A travelogue in the broadest sense, Wander is an account of one person’s search for understanding in the brightest and bleakest that the world has to offer.

The collection is broken into six sections and moves, roughly, from Isenberg’s home in Pittsburgh, around the world, and back again. It is punctuated throughout by the author’s photographs, which both mirror the content of the poems and create a break in the overall narrative. Think of them as a time of transit from one poem to the next.

For readers who grew up in the Rust Belt or any post-industrial U.S. city, the imagery of the early poems will be hauntingly familiar. Take this passage, from “Bayou”:

So many rusted frames
that once held signs—
so many signs
that lost letters
like teeth.

reads one.

As Isenberg moves farther from home, we see a transition from the study of otherness to the recognition of sameness. In “Hattingen,” impressions of the residents of a German town read like deft and astute annotations on the back of a photo:

I envy them
their algorithmic breaths,
their silences as tragic
as a refrigerator
shutting off.

By the time we’ve followed him to Africa, Isenberg is ready to show us ourselves in the faces and actions of those we will likely never meet. A standout is “The Woman of Mombasa,” a lovely, simile-rich poem made of lines that are shouts of breath.

The strongest poems here are those that reflect the greatest depth of experience. When Isenberg feels it most, so does the reader. In that transition from observation to recognition to an elucidation of thought, there are traces of Riprap era Gary Snyder and this collection of snapshot narratives finds a home in the tradition of poetry grounded in the exploration of parts unknown.

In what we perceive to be an endlessly connected world, Wander reminds us that there are still things and ideas and experiences (be they the pyramids of Giza or the cheesesteaks of Philadelphia) we must seek if we hope to find them.


Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer, playwright, photographer and stage performer. He is a past recipient of the Brickenridge Fellowship, McDowell Scholarship, Trespass Residency, and two Golden Quill Awards. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, where he served as Whitford Fellow, the program’s highest honor. Originally from Vermont, he lives in Pittsburgh.

Randolph Pfaff is one of the founding editors of apt.

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