We Are All Poets Here: Thomas Merton’s 1968 Journey to Alaska, a shared story about spiritual seeking, Kathleen Witkowska Tarr, VP&D House, Inc., 2018, 400 pages, $24.95
As impossible as it seems to imagine in today’s environment, fifty years ago one of the most renowned authors and thinkers in America was a Catholic monk who rarely ventured beyond the Trappist abbey in Kentucky where he spent most of his adult life after taking his vows. When he did finally set out abroad in 1968, he headed for Asia, where he would die in a freak accident. On his way there, however, he passed through Alaska, where he spent 17 days, fell in love with the land and its people, and gave serious thought to building a hermitage and isolating himself in the far north.
Anchorage-based author Kathleen Witkowska Tarr grew up without any religious affiliation whatsoever. It was only in middle-age, while working on her MFA, that she read Merton’s bestselling memoir “The Seven Storey Mountain” and discovered his writing. Subsequent to this she learned of his visit to Alaska, which had included a stop in the Southeast Alaska village of Yakutat where she had spent many years. Out of these two seeds an obsession grew, and she has spent the last decade chasing Merton through both his voluminous writings and and his travels. She’s pulled it all together in her own lengthy, meandering, but mostly absorbing memoir, “We Are All Poets Here.”
Tarr starts with her childhood in a poor family with an absent father in Pittsburgh during the turbulent sixties, when she absorbed the values of the counterculture. As a teen her mother moved Tarr and her siblings to Florida, where she attended college and dreamed of becoming a high-powered journalist. Instead she moved to Alaska, got married, and settled in Yakutat.
Tarr recounts her difficulties adapting to life in that tiny village far from the road system that serves as a catchment basin for all the rain the Pacific Ocean can drive into it. It’s a place that one can only come to love through the hardship of living there.
The family eventually departed, ultimately settling in Anchorage, and when her two sons were grown, Tarr returned to Pittsburgh to obtain her MFA. There her Merton obsession was kindled, but it didn’t become a raging fire until after she returned to Alaska and learned of his long ago visit. Despite never having held any religious beliefs, she found herself drawn into his writings, which set her off on a spiritual quest of her own.
What follows is a somewhat undisciplined narrative that careens about through Tarr’s personal experiences, a partial biography of Merton, discussions of his writings and views, an account of his visit to Alaska, Alaskan history (particularly from the Russian period), Tlingit history, sections devoted to the famous Russian novelist Boris Pasternak and the Alaskan poet and essayist John Haines. She covers a visit with the Old Believers who dwell in small Alaskan communities, Mount Saint Elias, going on a spiritual retreat, and more, all of it spinning back to Merton as the perpetual frame of reference.
Approaching this as a complete work is difficult for all the twists it takes, but there are sections that shine. Tarr’s visit to an Old Believers community on the Kenai Peninsula brings attention to a tiny but historically significant subculture in Alaska that rarely receives mention. Her discussion of Pasternak places the man and his work squarely in the context of the Soviet era he lived through and wrote during (that he inexplicably survived Stalin’s purges when so many of his contemporaries were sent to their deaths in the Gulag remains a miracle). Her descriptions of Yakutat are so vivid that readers will be reaching for their raincoats.
The most moving and fascinating passages are not those about Merton, but rather, her story of befriending the Pavlik family who homesteaded on Knight Island in Yakutat Bay. The patriarch, Mike Pavlik, wandered into Alaska on the cusp of World War II. A devout Catholic, he married a Tlingit woman and raised his family on his island, apart from civilization. A hard man with a temper, he valued family, but had little use for society. Somehow Tarr got through to him and drew out his story, which is found in this book. Later, in what proves to be the best chapter, she returns to Yakutat for his funeral. It’s a picture of a bygone Alaska, and very moving.
The main thread, however, concerns Merton. Tarr’s fascination sent her on a spiritual retreat near Merton’s abbey in Kentucky, and to the locations he visited in Alaska. Her obsession was a bit too overwhelming, and her efforts at locating her spiritual self by following a man who spent long periods alone looking inward led to personal conflicts that she acknowledges:
“Was it possible then, to lead a more contemplative life while I still showed up at my stuffy office cubicle five days a week? Or when I had family to cook for, a house to clean, and a stack of bills to pay? When my brother suffered a second stroke? When national politics was fraught with lies and no longer made any sense? When my husband betrayed me?”
This book probably would have worked better as a collection of loosely connected essays rather than the rambling memoir it emerged as. It would have tidied up the narrative considerably. And it suffers from poor copyediting, something I’d like to call the bane of self-publishing, but these days, when computers have taken over this task from alert humans, even some of the largest publishers are nearly as bad.
What the book does do is remind us that not so long ago there was a vibrant Christian intellectual tradition in America, and intellectual Americans interacted with Christianity. This has been all but driven to extinction by the rise of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, which scorn intellect, are obsessed with political influence, and preach obedience. Merton strove for human compassion instead. So does Tarr. And so did the religion’s namesake. We could all use a bit more of that.