Robert Isenberg

Robert Isenberg
December 31
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. His book, The Archipelago, about backpacking the postwar Balkans, was released by Autumn House Press in January 2011. See more at

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JUNE 14, 2012 10:48AM

Books by People I Know: "Attached to Earth"

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(For other Books by People I Know,

visit here and here). 

And so, inevitably, we stumbled into each other.

            When I first met Maureen, it was in the lobby of the Stephen Foster Memorial. I was about to see some show by Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre. She was the marketing director. We were destined to interact. We share a special relationship, we journalists and marketing people. We passively correspond with press releases and articles, emails and phone calls, datebooks and comp tickets. We’re like pen pals, whose missives are read by thousands of anonymous strangers every Wednesday.

            I love my PR people, but I particularly liked Maureen—instantly. She was petite and bespectacled, soft-spoken but quietly kinetic. I could picture her as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse built for misfit prodigies. PR people can be flamboyant, even dramatic, but Maureen was even-tempered and patient. She seemed both humble and proudly intelligent. It took me months to learn that she was also a playwright.

            Not, I should add, an “aspiring playwright.” She seemed to skip that step. What I discovered, to my delight, is that Maureen is as tireless a writer as I am. Sure, we carefully compose and revise, but we’re not the types of writers to torture ourselves over verb choice with no end in sight. She likes to show her work. Maureen has received readings and productions all over the place. Which gave me the chance to have a meaningful conversation.


We got together for one dinner, in the Southside, at a Mediterranean place. This was a long time ago, now. When our respective dishes arrived, I started to dig into my couscous. The fork was lifted halfway to my lips before I realized she wasn’t eating. Maureen’s eyes were closed. Her hands were clasped. Not only didn’t I know much about Maureen—I had no idea she was the type to say grace. Caught off-guard, I only sat there, loaded utensil raised, not sure what to do, until she crossed herself and proceeded.

            That’s how I remember it, anyway. And I remember almost nothing else—what we talked about, what we ate. Did I learn she studied at Trinity College in Dublin then, or another time? Did she give me synopses of her plays, or her background? Did I know she’d studied at Carnegie-Mellon, taught screenwriting at CAPA? What did I bang on about? The years have eclipsed the memory. And this was the one time—in the decade we’ve known each other, harbored respect for each other’s work, waved enthusiastically from across a crowded art gallery—that we ever just talked, one-on-one.


Then, last year, Maureen’s chapbook came out. I was awestruck. I had no idea that Maureen wrote poetry, much less had caught the attention of Finishing Line Press, much less had impassioned blurbs written by Peter Oresick and Jim Daniels. I tracked down a copy at Awesome Books and happily forked over the $12. The 24 pages were bound in heavyweight paper and baby-blue ribbon. The cover art, showing angel statuettes on a house’s windowsill, was printed in color. As a publication, Attached to Earth is about as splendid as a chapbook gets.

            As writing, the book helped elucidate a woman I’d only known as sketch. The personal poems are so vivid that I imagine them as Super 8 films projected on a bed sheet:


                 Dishcloth cloaks sink’s nozzle.

                 Beyond my shuttered window

                 the sickle moon tapers

                 to lethal points


Not always pleasant home movies, mind you, but as plainly revealing. My favorite, and understandably the final piece in the book, is “On Seeing a Photo of Myself Running,” which not only explains the title of the book, but shows the pride of a veteran cross-country runner (the fact of which I learned only today).

            In the middle, Maureen places a six-part series called “Jesus and Peter.” As a wayward soul, I have less personal attachment to these pieces. But what’s striking about Maureen’s vision is how surreal and dreamlike it is. The First Apostle and the King of Kings share coffee. They speak in contemporary dialogue (“Take John out—he’s beside himself”). There’s a lot of doubt and confusion in these poems, which I find heavily confessional as well as narrative. As someone who has never felt such theological conflict, I’ve delighted in reading these six parts, several times, to puzzle them out. And as someone who’s always been embarrassed by The Couscous Incident, a moment that Maureen has probably forgotten, reading this section is a nice old humanist way of expressing grace.


On June 25, Maureen will receive a reading of her play, Master Orlov’s Footman, at The Grey Box Theatre. I will likely be returning from a wedding, and will miss yet another reading by one of my favorite colleagues. But I’m very happy for her. It takes chutzpah to adapt a Chekhov short story, just as it takes chutzpah to write a poetry collection, teach high school students, and study in a foreign country. She may be quiet—at least around me—but Maureen is resilient. Her love of the art is boundless, and I can’t imagine what she’ll create in upcoming years. The Earth is lucky to be so attached.

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