poetics.ca issue #1
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Introduction to The Collected Poems and Translations of Edward A. Lacey

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     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 those halls

       Innocent in my light and laughing morning,

       Knew friendship, treason and autocracy;

       But now I hear, without an unseen wall,

       The soundless voice again of my first warning,

       "All shalt thou have, who hast hypocrisy."

     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
Bacchic poems".

     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 on art.

        The world will pay you just as much attention

        as if you were a fiddler crab....

    "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 Game":

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 of them

      I'll catch the essence that always eludes me.)

     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.

     Immerse yourself.

Fraser Sutherland
Toronto, Canada
June 2000

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.

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