Introduction to The Collected
Poems and Translations of Edward A. Lacey
The poet Edward Lacey had
more contradictions than most of us. He was pedantically aloof, yet
could make friends with people from any culture, race, or class. He
yearned for intimacy yet rejected it. He feared but was attracted to
violence. He was arrogant but diffident, combining an almost solipsistic
narcissism with great generosity and sensitivity to others. Among his
friends, he inspired, in equal measure, affection, tolerance, and clucking
disapproval. Death-haunted and self-destructive, he led a manic-depressive
rhythm of existence in which a few close friends were treated to long
silences, then bombarded with letters that were epic in length. He hated
Canada so corrosively that it amounted to love.
As a traveller, Lacey is one of the few writers
from North America who became intimately conversant with the Third World
as it was in the latter half of the twentieth century. As a translator
- Lacey could read and write four languages fluently, and could function
effectively in several others - he is superb. Among critics, scholars,
and the reading public, it is also largely unacknowledged that he is
one of the few Canadian poets, and the only gay one, who has a reputation
outside the country.
Lacey was born in Lindsay, Ontario in
1937 and died in Toronto in 1995, though in a sense he died one night
during the summer of 1991, when a speeding car ran over him as he lay
in a drunken stupor in a Bangkok street. The chronology that follows
records the principal events of his life, but no list of jobs, travels,
and publications can suggest how he led his life of wandering, or do
more than hint at his character, much less his charm. Lacey was a binge-drinker
whose nearly exclusive sexual focus was on teenage rough trade. Consequently,
he was beaten and robbed many times, and was often involved in complicated
tangles with the law, notably in Morocco, where he was jailed two months
in 1978 for possession of hashish. Estranged from most of his family,
he squandered an inheritance from his parents within a decade. He may
have held the world's record for broken glasses and stolen passports.
From the start, Lacey considered himself to
be a mutant, or perhaps an extraterrestrial. The world was strange to
him, and everywhere he was a stranger. Writing to me in 1974, he remembered
a significant talk he'd had with John Robert and Ruth Colombo, friends
from his days at the University of Toronto. Ruth had asked him whether
he felt "Canadian" or "Latin American", at which
point John Robert interjected to say:
"The problem with Edward, I think, is that he doesn't feel human."
He then remarked that my poems were filled with an explosion of sensory
details, "but, in the attempt to prove his humanity, it's the mind
willing the body to be sensory & sensual, not the instinctive sensuality
of the body."
His principal themes, Lacey always maintained, were exile
and alienation, "the pervasive sense of not belonging anywhere,
to anything..." Yet, no matter how lost or deracinated he
felt himself to be, he still wrote poems - until injuries to his body
and brain made the process psychologically impossible.
A lonely, hypersensitive only child of pious
Catholic parents, he found in poetry one of his few boyhood pleasures.
In later life he joked that, aged 11, in a competition among schoolchildren
in the Peterborough
diocese, he'd won a prize from Father Peyton's World Rosary Crusade
for the best poem on the subject of the rosary. The poem, he said, "was
composed in Hiawathan trochees and mentions practically every precious
stone in the dictionary." In "Les Visites Interprovinciales",
he tells of how, going on 14, he babbled about poetry to an uncomprehending
student-exchange counterpart from Québec, a boy who was much more interested
in filles but, one night in a Montreal bed, became interested
in Lacey. A zealous high school teacher preserved and submitted two
Grade IX poems to an anthology called First Flowering: A Selection
of Prose and Poetry by the Youth of Canada that were published,
to Lacey's cringing embarrassment, while he was attending college.
Studying languages at University College at
the University of Toronto, he learned from writers like Barker Fairley
and Robert Finch. Writing to me in 1974, he noted that Finch was "the
one Canadian poet who paid pre-eminent attention to form as well as
content, the one Canadian poet who writes (when at his best) in the
glittering but cerebral style of Wallace Stevens & Richard Wilbur.
If Layton is Canada's greatest poet, Finch is Canada's best poet, purely
as a craftsman." Equally important were the enduring friendships
he made with Henry Beissel and John Robert Colombo. Through Colombo,
he appeared in student publications. Amid psychological upheaval, he
won a prize for the translations from André Chénier he had done for
Robert Finch, and was ejected from the men's residence, sardonically
reflecting soon after the fact in "In Memoriam":
There was a time when I once roamed
Innocent in my light and laughing
Knew friendship, treason and autocracy;
But now I hear, without an unseen
The soundless voice again of my
"All shalt thou have, who
The M.A. in linguistics and languages that
he afterwards gained from the University of Texas in Austin might have
presaged a prosperous academic career had not he betrayed to a U.S.
customs official that he was carrying marijuana from Mexico. Convicted
of drug possession, he was given a suspended sentence and forbidden
entry into the United States. Thus he began his permanent exile. He
spent four years in Torreón, northern Mexico, as a teacher of English
as a second language. During a sepulchral year teaching Scientific German
at the University of Alberta in "Deadmonton", Lacey renewed
acquaintance with Henry Beissel and met Beissel's wife Ruth, who became
his frequent correspondent and, in some ways, his most intimate friend.
Beissel, then on the teaching staff, had recently started an energetic
journal of literature and political comment called Edge. Over
the next several years Lacey contributed to Edge poems and slashing,
idiosyncratic, exhaustively detailed chronicles of current Canadian
poetry, coyly bylined "E.A. Lacey, pseud." Irving Layton was
under the misapprehension that Henry Beissel had written them.
During the Edmonton year, Lacey conferred
with Dennis Lee, who had been a younger contemporary at the University
of Toronto, about publication of The Forms of Loss (1965). The
Forms of Loss was a slim volume, yet one that typified the conflicting
directions in which his poetry was taking. In it, strict forms like
the sonnet were typical of his work in the 1950s, full of puns, archaisms,
and veiled personal allusions. Though largely imagined, "Quintillas"
(after the octosyllabic five-line Spanish verse form with various rhyming
possibilities) may have been his first openly gay poem. Had he continued
in this allusive, formalistic vein he might have become a poet much
like his mentor, Robert
Finch. But competing against this tendency were freer, looser lines
and translations from Spanish, and autobiographical poems about childhood,
Mexican scenes, boys. The confessional mode came to prevail.
Lacey taught in Trinidad and Brazil, and journeyed
the length and breadth of Latin America, making sporadic returns to
Canada to deal with family matters, visit friends, and to oversee the
publication of two books. The first of these was Path of Snow
(1974) self-published in Montreal under the imprint of the Ahasuerus
Press, an identification with the Wandering Jew of legend. The poems,
glossed by copious endnotes, took him from his Lindsay boyhood through
Latin American travels. For added value, there were three pages of passport
stamps and a page of snapshots of his boyfriends. Later (1978),
in some ways a postscript to Path of Snow, was published in
Toronto by the poet, editor, and gay activist Ian Young, whose Catalyst
Press had distributed the earlier book. The title reflected a reiterated
topic, the elegiac lament for lost youth and a horror of growing older.
When he told John Robert Colombo that he had thought of calling the
book, Drift Away, after the title of a rock song, Colombo replied,
"Yes, because that sums up the story of your life, Edward."
His parents having died, Lacey drifted away
from Latin America in the late 1970s on travels that, not counting returns
to Canada, took him from North Africa to Greece and then to the Indian
subcontinent and the Far East. By now he was becoming known in the gay
community as a poet. Ian Young considered The Forms of Loss to
be the first openly gay book of poetry, probably the first openly gay
book of any sort, ever published in Canada and his reputation was further
affirmed by Lacey or Tropic Snows: Theatrical Tales of a Canadian
Exile in Brazil (1983), directed by Sky Gilbert and staged by Buddies
in Bad Times Theatre. In the late 1980s, his friend and publisher Winston
Leyland of Gay Sunshine Press in San Francisco commissioned several
translations of Latin American gay literature, as well as an abridged
translation of The Delight of Hearts, or What you will not
find in any book (1988), based on a French version translated by
René R. Khawam, itself based on the original Arabic manuscripts of Ahmad
al-Tifashi, its 11th-century compiler. Lacey's scholarly introduction
termed it "a book of anecdotes, of what might not unfairly be termed
a medieval jokebook - studded with nearly one hundred
During his Far East travels, Lacey renewed
contact with Byron Black, a friend from their days at the University
of Texas. With Black's help, he got work teaching English in Indonesia
and it was Black who, after Lacey's near-fatal accident, published at
his own expense Third World: Travel Poems by E.A. Lacey (1994).
Notable among the poems gathered is "From Land Without Sorrow",
a long sequence of poems set amid the civil carnage that swept Sri Lanka
while he was travelling there. Correspondence to the Beissel family
was reproduced in A Magic Prison: Letters from Edward Lacey (1995),
edited by David Helwig, once his contemporary at the University of Toronto,
and published the same year as Lacey's death.
Now must come the question that this introduction
and this book must answer. Was Edward Lacey a good poet?
In some ways, he was not. Certainly he could
be his own harshest critic. He wrote me in 1976 that, were he do Path
of Snow again, he would "junk half the poems & revise the
rest....The most successful & (maybe) durable ones still seem to
me to be the erotic ones (on which theme I've really said everything,
so I'd only be repeating myself) and those connected with my childhood
& youth." He called the poems in Later "jejune, despairing,
and unvital." Critical comments on Path of Snow, he said,
"have been the same comments made on my poetry since I was a teenager,
when Jay Macpherson commented that 'they're all gems, & all of them
flawed,'& David Helwig (to be echoed nearly 20 years later by Louis
Dudek) quoted a line of mine & said that what I wrote was 'between
a poem and a prose.'"
Dennis Lee, 10 years previously, had written
of Lacey's "'...chunks of prose, hacked into lines of verse.'
On the other side are those, like Layton, who attack me for my 'reliance
on the iamb, suitable only for the expression of a faded romantic sensibility.....
or for my formalism, use of rhyme schemes, and "facility"'(U.
of T. Quarterly). When critics attack my 'uninspired sentimentality',
that's a critique I do accept & admit - the others... simply seem
to contradict one another".
Such views were not in fact contradictory,
because in his pages the unfashionably formalistic, even the formulaic,
marches side by side with the rhythmically, rhapsodically prosaic.
Throughout his work, Lacey discounts the relevance
of poetry. In part of "Mexico North - A Suite of Poems" he
likens the nature of poetry to that of the mesquite. The mesquite is
"no good even for burning, / which only makes eyes water, like
bitter memories." In "Stray Lines à la Nicanor Parra"
he sardonically advises Henry Beissel to:
Go and write great poems
on a desert island,
write of the tides of sea
and man, the rhythms
of life and death, get you
to a lonely tower
and soliloquize immortally
The world will pay you just
as much attention
as if you were a fiddler
"Poetry will eventually yield to prose, / and
prose will cede unto computerese," he says in an untitled poem
about Constantine Cavafy, a poet he revered. As time goes on, he becomes
increasingly jaundiced. In "Variations on a Theme from Henry Adams"
he mocks his earliest self, saying he should have come to La Ceiba,
a banana port in Honduras:
... as a fifteen-year-old romantic,
high on sex, sun, sea, light and warmth and colour,
to trot these beaches with sandpiper and plover
and spurt my adolescent poetry
to green waves, ghost crabs and the uncritical trade wind.
Now, a "vagrant homosexual pushing forty"
he morbidly laments: " (gone, gone, that poetry of names and places,
/ that sense that each cantina'd change my life)...". In "The
Poet in Middle Age" he compares writing poems to having orgasms:
" the laziness, the flagging inspiration, the joyless expert craftsmanship
like the slow softening / forced erections and unsatisfactory climaxes
of these middle years." Even when the poem apparently succeeds,
he asks himself: "How many more have I got left in me? / When will
the last one come? How will it be?" In "Reflections at Five
a.m." he lists the many things that no longer interest him, among
them, "art, poetry, philosophy. / They are all imitations of life.
Games people play." An early poem, "Externals of Poetic Form"
states that the "unanswerable question yet / is, what makes 'red'
mean 'red', not 'jet', / or makes or made it mean at all..."
In "Poetry and Pottery", he
calls poems "Oblique word-games. / Language should try to say clearly
/ what little it can say."
Yet a shrinking of ambition may be virtuous.
In "The Miniaturist" he admiringly writes of an Ecuadorian
carver who, using a magnifying glass, paints scenes on heads of pins
and tacks, wooden matchsticks, and grains of wheat. "Little, leathery
men" like this craftsman and his counterparts across Latin America,
"drew their gods huge and fearsome, but life / - they saw life
steadily and saw it small." Seeing life small represents for Lacey
the direct transcription of experience. As he undertakes this, he often
casts doubt that what he is writing is poetry at all, beginning "The
Let me warn you, reader, this is not a sexy poem.
(If it's poetry at all.) So, if you wish, you may skip it.
It's about five days in a Buenos Aires jail-cell,
with a gambler, a gaucho, an epileptic, a schizo,
a man who had TB, and (briefly) a corpse.
For Lacey, the act of writing poetry entails
unmediated referentiality, transparent representation. Writing of Nepalese
mountains, rice paddies, and an orange-red monk sheltering under a dripping
bo-tree in "Mountains, Paddy Field and Monk: Composition,"
he notes that these figures are not amethysts, emeralds, and rubies.
Analogies are fallacies. When it is not a stroke of lightning, metaphor
is death to poetry, he says. Beauty is beauty. His is a thoroughly puritan
poetics. Paradoxically, it is only through the constraints of translation
that he manages to break free imaginatively.
This, then, is a severely, and, in some ways
unattractively, self-limiting poet. For a poet to insist on poetry's
and his own inadequacies while simultaneously taking himself very seriously
indeed does not make for an inviting combination. To declare that poems
are word-games sits oddly with his contention that they have an ongoing
debt and obligation to actuality.
Perhaps the most damaging quality of Lacey's
work is its lack of tonal variety. Even allowing for intermittent flashes
of mordant wit, the mood of the poems is almost universally, nihilistically
bleak. With tiresome re-emphasis he tells us that death is inevitable,
that the world is doomed by impoverishment and overpopulation, that
history is merely a chronicle of calamities. He sado-masochistically
layers details of cruelty and suffering inflicted by human beings or
by nature, as if it should be news to the reader that people are starved,
tortured, or massacred. Thus we're
painfully told of a dog's abandonment in "The Island", and
in "Peaceful Deaths" and two "Meknès" poems,
of atrocities, enormities, and monstrosities in the past and present.
On a personal level, there is something profoundly unappealing
about what is at times his narcissistic wallowing, specifically how
he desperately seeks intimacy and then, when it is at hand, abruptly
turns away from it. All the classical clichés are present and accounted
for - Carpe diem, tempus fugit, timor mortis conturbat me -
and, when he employs strict verse forms, loud Bartlett's Quotations
or Golden Treasury echoes. Anything even remotely related to
Canada or Canadians is couched in jeers and sneers, no doubt justly
deserved but dulled, implicitly nullified, by hysterical or gratuitous
repetition. His preference for extreme specificity does not prevent
his indulging in grandiose generalizations. Irrelevant parentheses and
second-guessings abound; poems seldom end when they should and instead
often terminate in some predictable or puerile banality.
Why, then, should we read him at all? Technically,
there is much metrical and lyrical skill in the poems, and, in many
passages, the affective pleasures of feeling their power and poignancy.
He had a Lawrentian sensitivity to birds, beasts, and flowers. Lacey
often contradicted himself but to accuse him of illogicality would be
to miss the point he made to me in 1976: "I am a responsive organism,
not really a thinking one, or, rather, perhaps, I think intuitively
& imaginatively, rather than reason." To call some of his work
prosaic is not necessarily pejorative. Some of his verse, like the unpublished
long poem "The Millstone" - guilt-haunted and pitched in a
tragic key - are in effect superb short stories. The compulsive, Whitmanesque
list-making can be a formal deficiency, but it is based on honourable
intentions. In "L'autre, l'inaissable" he asks:
(Why so many details? Well, I am compulsive
about them, feel if I get down enough
I'll catch the essence that always eludes
Poetry is seldom considered to be a suitable
vehicle for conveying facts. However, there is no reason why it should
not effectively function in this way and, sometimes supplemented or
amplified by notes, Lacey's poems often do: they supply first-hand,
seldom-offered information about
what it was like to live and breathe in the swarming cities and stranded
hamlets of the Third World. If sometimes the information merely answers
to the village explainer part of his personality, it also enriches his
work, creating travel writing of a high order. As for how he pursued
his personal myth, one need neither deplore nor applaud it to find
fascinating, as I do, all the minutiae of his autonomy and his isolation.
The poems that follow are all the ones I have
so far found, which does not preclude the discovery of others - though
these are likely to be juvenilia, like his prize-winning effort on the
topic of the rosary. Each of the sections is prefaced by a short bibliographical
note. I have taken minor liberties, when the interests of clarity called
for it, in the presentation of the poems and notes. I have converted
all footnotes into endnotes; Lacey was inconsistent in such matters,
as he was in spelling, italicization, and hyphenation. The poems in
The Forms of Loss, Path of Snow, Later, and Third
World follow the order of their first published form, as do the
poems in The Delight of Hearts, extracted from the book of
the same name. To some poems I've added notes or titles that only exist
in manuscript. Where Lacey did not provide dates for uncollected poems
I've enclosed them in square brackets and assigned them on the basis
of circumstantial evidence - a problematic undertaking, given his habit
of working and reworking poems over many years. Largely, I have taken
a laissez-faire approach to the text, though I've attempted to regularize
spelling to concur with Canadian practice. The uncollected poems exist
in versions that vary from immaculately typed or handwritten fair copies
to shreds of scrawled-upon Kleenex - or something worse. I have attempted
to transcribe or reconstruct all as accurately as possible; where the
poet interleaves alternative words or lines I have chosen the version
that seemed to me superior. I would like to thank Donald McLeod, Nik
Sheehan, David Warren, and Ian Young for their assistance. None of my
errors and omissions should be laid at their door, nor at the door of
John Robert Colombo, whose publication of this book is a great tribute
to an old friend.
Enjoy, used as an injunction to you, the reader,
may not be quite the word when it comes to the poetry of Edward Lacey.
Fraser Sutherland was born and raised in Nova
Scotia, and is now living in Toronto. He is a widely traveled freelance
writer, critic, editor, and lexicographer. His work has appeared in
numerous periodicals and anthologies, including eight volumes of poetry,
four of nonfiction, and one of short fiction, some of it translated
into Albanian, Farsi, French, Italian, and Serbo-Croat. A member of
PEN, he has a special interest in immigrant and exiled writers.