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Gervais, C(harles) H(enry)

GERVAIS, C(harles) H(enry)


Nationality: Canadian. Born: Windsor, Ontario, 20 October 1946. Education: University of Guelph, Ontario, B.A. 1971; University of Windsor, M.A. in English 1972. Family: Married Donna Wright in 1968; one daughter and two sons. Career: Staff member TorontoGlobe and Mail, 1966, and Canadian Press, Toronto, 1967; reporter, Daily Commercial News, Toronto, 1967; teacher of creative writing, St. Clair College, Windsor, 1969–71; editor, Sunday Standard, Windsor, 1972; reporter, Chatham Daily News, 1972–73; general news reporter, 1973–74 and 1976–81, bureau chief, 1974–76, religion editor, 1979–80, since 1980 book editor, and since 1990 entertainment writer, Windsor Star. Since 1969 publisher, Black Moss Press, Windsor. Since 1983 contributing editor, Oberon Press, Ottawa. Contributing guest, Morningside, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio, Toronto, 1988–90. Awards: Western Ontario Newspaper award, 1983, 1984, 1987; Western Ontario Newspaper award, 1987. Address: 1939 Alsace Avenue, Windsor, Ontario N8W 1M5, Canada.

Publications

Poetry

Sister Saint Anne. Toronto, Bandit Press, 1968.

Something. Toronto, Bandit Press, 1969.

Other Marriage Vows. Windsor, Ontario, Sun Parlor Press, 1969.

A Sympathy Orchestra. Fredericton, New Brunswick, Fiddlehead, 1970.

Bittersweet. Guelph, Ontario, Alive Press, 1972.

Poems for American Daughters. Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1976.

The Believable Body. Fredericton, New Brunswick, Fiddlehead, 1979.

Up Country Lines. Moonbeam, Ontario, Penumbra Press, 1979.

Silence Comes with Lake Voices. Toronto, League of Canadian Poets, 1980.

Into a Blue Morning: Selected Poems. Toronto, Hounslow Press, 1982.

Public Fantasy: The Maggie T Poems. Guelph, Ontario, Sequel Press, 1983.

Letters from the Equator. Moonbeam, Ontario, Penumbra Press, 1986.

Autobiographies. Moonbeam, Ontario, Penumbra Press, 1989.

Playing God: New Poems. Oakville, Ontario, Mosaic Press, 1994.

Tearing into a Summer Day: Prose Poems. Buffalo, New York, Mosaic Press, 1996.

Plays

Baldoon, with James Reaney (produced Toronto, 1976). Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1976.

Northern Calamities. Cobalt, Ontario, Highway Book Shop, 1976.

The Fighting Parson (produced Windsor, Ontario, 1979). Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1983.

Other

How Bruises Lost His Secret (for children). Windsor, Ontario, Black Moss Press, 1975.

Doctor Troyer and the Secret in the Moonstone (for children). Windsor, Ontario, Black Moss Press, 1976.

The Rumrunners: A Prohibition Scrapbook. Thornhill, Ontario, Firefly, 1980.

If I Had a Birthday Everyday (for children). Windsor, Ontario, Black Moss Press, 1983.

Voices Like Thunder. N.p., Third World Resource Centre, 1984.

The Border Police: One Hundred and Twenty-Five Years of Policing in Windsor. Waterloo, Ontario, Penumbra Press, 1992.

Seeds in the Wilderness: Profiles of World Religious Leaders. Kingston, Ontario, Quarry Press, 1994.

From America Sent: Letters to Henry Miller. Kingston, Ontario, Quarry Press, 1995.

Editor, The Writing Life: Historical and Critical Views of the Tish Movement. Windsor, Ontario, Black Moss Press, 1976.

*

Critical Studies: "Memories of Marty As a Virginal Romantic" by Ted Plantos, and "WQ Interview with C. H. Gervais" by Judith Fitzgerald, both in Writers Quarterly (Toronto), spring 1986.

C. H. Gervais comments:

I have this belief that poetry communicates before it is even understood. In other words, it is not necessary for one to take apart the poem limb by limb to get at its heart or soul, but rather it is important for the reader to be absorbed into the language and music and magic of the writing. And this occurs at the outset. Sometimes the process is not understood by the poet. At times the poet is the last to recognize the authority he has, and when this takes place, you realize the power of language and music. That is why, when I write poetry, I look for these coincidences of human nature, the small accidents, knowing that the rhythms and words of my own experience will emerge. The process of writing, as one can see, is a matter of trust, of learning to be patient, of waiting for the muse to strike. Naturally, it can be frustrating; it is not easy or even satisfying to sit back. But the process can be fulfilling…. One needs to be patient, ready, willing.

*  *  *

The poetry of C. H. "Marty" Gervais is that of a secular man in search of the spiritual world. In the roles of the father, the husband, the traveler, the chronicler, and the storyteller, he writes poems that bridge the distance between the spiritual concerns of Thomas Merton or of Saint Martin de Porres and the relationships within his own family life and daily routines. Gervais accomplishes this with a journalistic specificity (when he is not writing poetry, he is a journalist for the Windsor Star), an exactness in image, and a love of detail.

Building on the reputation of his earlier works, his volumes Letters from the Equator and Autobiographies established Gervais as a voice that speaks for the family man devoted to his wife, his children, and his career, though one who is both perplexed and fascinated by the world and in need of answers. Having reached a point in his life and his literary work where he has achieved a modicum of comfortable accomplishment, Gervais weighs and acknowledges those elements he feels he can trust, such as family life and the joy he has experienced in being a father. In "Moons Still Dancing" in Autobiographies, Gervais pays homage to his three children by marking their respective birthdays with the phases of the moon and recalls intimate moments of parental love that have passed between them. The captured moment, the quiet, almost commonplace instant from daily life, is the currency of his poetry, and it is Gervais's ability to capture that moment that gives his work its eloquence. For example, in "The Commonplace," also from Autobiographies, Gervais laments the failure of life to capture as many of these moments as he would wish:

   We recognize so little
   of what is common
   caring nothing for
   identities, simply
   waking each day
   to accept everything
   at face value,
   asking nothing,
   wishing no
   names, no past
   no future, no truth,
   no record of any kind.

Yet the very act of writing poetry, of preserving the details and the richness of a passing moment, is in itself a record, a chronicle of the commonplace preserved. In this respect Gervais has maintained the focus he shares with his mentor Al Purdy in the earlier volumes of his opus. (His other important mentor, at least from the aspect of poetic problem solving, has been James Reaney.) Like Purdy, who noted in his introduction to Into a Blue Morning that Gervais was a "man pushing against his limitations, trying to shove the barriers in his mind a little farther ahead; snatching spare moments from being a husband and father and wage-earner to write poems," Gervais has sought to enrich and elevate minor, almost insignificant, details of daily life simply by honoring them with his attention. In "Blackberries," from Into a Blue Morning, Gervais recalls meeting a female acquaintance after years apart. He concludes, after noting the changes that have transpired in their lives, that

   I remember a time when only eyes
   sustained this, penetrating
   & warm. Such is the evolution
   of art—separating from
   the body in a blur of motion,
   trailing & faint, but alive.

For Gervais the focus of a poem is not only its purpose but also an investiture of the subject with a spirituality, a transcendence that goes beyond the mere imagistic surveillance of his early work in Poems for American Daughters. Like his poetic model Merton, Gervais believes in the sanctity of the spirit of the world, though not necessarily in the world itself.

The shift in Gervais's work from the early imagism to a kind of meditative spiritual writing is marked in the theme and the tone of Letters from the Equator. As Gervais noted in an interview, Letters from the Equator marked the crossing of a spiritual demarcation in his poetry, in which the perspectives and tensions of his own experience suddenly came into harmony: "I see this balance in terms of the equator. There are obvious connections. I did a lot of wandering around South America near the equator. I see the equator as a kind of dividing point between spiritual chaos in one's life and order." In the tradition of early Canadian literature such as the Jesuit Relations of the seventeenth century, Gervais has chronicled his experiences, his feelings, and his perceptions in letters. The epistolary prose poems that form the crux of Letters from the Equator are spiritual documents addressed to those figures who have had a bearing on his spiritual and literary life and who themselves reflect that balanced order: Proust, Apollinaire, Georges Simenon, Goethe, Keats, Cocteau, and, of course, the Peruvian Saint Martin de Porres, whose name he adopted in place of his own Christian names of Charles Henry. After faithfully describing the details of a street scene in Lima in "First Letter to Martin in Lima," Gervais concludes, "But here your feet slide in shadows beneath eyes & hands that yearn for more than words," a recognition that poetry itself must exceed its bounds by recognizing its own limitations. In "Postcards from Gethsemani, Kentucky," a long suite of poems about a visit to Merton's monastery, Gervais concludes that "the world is one of opposites" and "extremes," in which the contemporary man of the spirit and of the world finds himself walking a tenuous line between the encumbering details of his daily existence and the profound yet static haunts of the soul.

In Autobiographies this dichotomy is translated into simpler metafictional terms, in which the act of making a poem or of telling a story from a singular and therefore questionable standpoint becomes the blurred distinction between truth and lies. The answer, as the earlier argument between world and spirit in Letters from the Equator suggested, is the realm of possibility, where one must accept what one wants to accept and believe what one wants to believe as long as that belief is held passionately. In this context Gervais becomes a love poet, with the uncertainty of love, of knowing and not knowing whether one is loved and being loved, becoming a metaphor for the male/female relationship. In "Confessions & Conclusions" he critiques his passion and that of his lover:

   I reveal too much about myself; you too little.
   I ought to have held back: you, to have been more generous.
   Perhaps I have been too vulnerable. Perhaps it's too late.

Although such doubts, such uncertainties, cannot be resolved to satisfaction, one can settle for faith, faith in experience, in the moments of resolution and clarity, and in the joy one finds in his own situation. In "Little League Ball Park," which concludes Autobiographies, Gervais finds his equilibrium, his point of harmony, as he loses himself in his youngest son's baseball game:

   But for the moment we hang on each
   pitch, each movement as these players move
   with ease & grace, as they time each hit, each throw,
   each run, as they wait on each movement from
   us, knowing we are always there, always cheering.
 
 
   It is the shape of innocence that keeps
   them alive, affords them confidence, drives
   them to limits, careless & reckless, ignoring
   the coming storm, the invading chaos
   for they know we are there, always alive,
   as they go through each new turn around the bases.

Regardless of their importance to others, the commonplace experiences, the certainties of life such as a child's baseball game and the beauty of seemingly insignificant lost moments, are for Gervais reliable. As a journalist whose passion is poetry, Gervais aims to tell the story as he sees it, with the facts "nailed down," the life lived, and the moments recorded.

—Bruce Meyer

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