In each issue of Xtra, a prominent literary Canadian recommends a queer-authored book. In this installment, playwright and professor Sky Gilbert recommends Edward A Lacey’s Later (Catalyst, 1978).
I have just revisited Later: Poems 1973–1978 by EA Lacey. I am happy to report that it is my favourite Canadian book. In fact, upon rereading it, I am stunned by the literal body shocks the poems provide. I returned to Later frightened, reluctant: would I love these poems as much as I did when I first read them nearly 20 years ago? Indeed I do.
EA Lacey is one of the best — perhaps the best — of all Canadian poets. Why have you never heard of him? Because he was gay. Well, there are a couple of other reasons too. For instance, he hated Canada and did everything he could to leave our country as often as he could. One of the most beautiful evocations of his hatred for Canada — which he considered to be cold, dead, sexless and excruciatingly loveless — is in a single heartbreaking line from a poem called The Year in Edmonton, or Sensory Deprivation: “I never saw a green tree there.”
But the other reason Lacey’s work is undeservedly ignored has to do with the content: Lacey was unabashedly promiscuous and had a romantic and sexual fondness for teenaged boys.
One of the poems in Later concerns a sexual escapade Lacey had with a 16-year-old boy and his 11-year-old brother. As I write about this poem, I wonder if it is legal to even mention it. But the book is still available in libraries, and on its release it was praised by no less than John Robert Colombo and Dennis Lee.
Lacey is not, strictly speaking, a pedophile; he is a fatally romantic ephebophile. What saves his work from accusations of either pornography or banality is the lacerating honesty of his observations about himself; indeed, the beauty of the work lies in what it cost him to write it.
On the one hand, Lacey is unafraid to reveal his most horny and bestial imaginings in a poem ironically titled Caligula: “I wish that the world had one cock so I could suck it;/I wish that the world had one ass so that I could fuck it and be free from the goad of promiscuity.”
But in Rejean, Lacey captures in four lines the painful essence of promiscuity, the beauty and sadness of a lifetime spent in the pursuit of sexual satisfaction:
so in the end I left him
— as I leave everybody —
to go on with my searching.
And God knows what’s become of him.
I met Lacey only once, at the end of his life, when he was very ill and had come back to visit the country he hated so much for the last time. I wish I had said to him, “You are the greatest poet since CP Cavafy.” Instead, I probably said something like, “I’m a big fan of yours.”
Lacey’s poems, as achingly beautiful as Cavafy’s, ride the thin line between casual speech and profound utterance. It is a line that Lacey joyously crossed.