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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
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
Knew friendship, treason
But now I hear, without an
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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
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"
(Why so many details? Well, I am
about them, feel if I get down
enough of them
I'll catch the essence that always
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
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.
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