Nonfiction Review by Robert G. May

Fraser Sutherland, Lost Passport: The Life and Words of Edward Lacey (Toronto: Bookland, 2011). Paperbound, 460 pp., $26.95.

Lost PassportEdward A. Lacey was born in Lindsay, Ontario in 1937. He studied modern languages and literatures at the University of Toronto and pursued graduate work in linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. Unable to complete his graduate degree because of a minor drug offence, he embarked on a life of international travel, working on a casual contract basis as an English tutor and translator in Mexico, the Caribbean, South America, Africa, India, Thailand, and other faraway places, rarely returning to Canada until the end of his life. In 1965, he published The Forms of Loss, considered by many critics to be the first openly gay poetry collection to be published in English Canada. Three other collections followed: Path of Snow (1974), Later (1978), and Third World (1994). He also published many of his translations in various periodicals and anthologies. In 1991, he was run over by a car in Bangkok, resulting in severe brain damage. He spent the rest of his life in Canadian care facilities, and eventually succumbed to a heart attack in Toronto in 1995.

Perhaps because Lacey published his poetry privately or with very small presses, he has received scant critical attention. In the years following his death, one or two critics have started to correct this omission. In 1995, David Helwig published A Magic Prison, a selection of Lacey’s letters to Henry Beissel. In 2000, Fraser Sutherland, a Torontobased poet and journalist—as well as Lacey’s friend and literary executor—produced with John Robert Colombo the 724-page Collected Poems and Translations of Edward A. Lacey. In 2005, Sutherland prefaced and edited for Canadian Poetry a generous selection of Lacey’s own critical reviews, taken mainly from Beissel’s Edge. In 2007, John Barton and Billeh Nickerson included a generous selection of Lacey’s poetry in Seminal, their anthology of Canada’s gay male poets.

Sutherland’s new biography of Lacey is called Lost Passport: The Life and Words of Edward Lacey. The main title is appropriate, since Lacey seemed always to be losing his Canadian passport, either through carelessness, confrontations with robbers, or altercations with overzealous government officials. Indeed, Sutherland speculates that Lacey may hold the world record for most number of lost passports (as well as smashed glasses). Lacey always found a way to finagle a new passport, however, enabling him to continue the travels that form the basis and inspiration for Sutherland’s book. The subtitle is less appropriate, however, since Sutherland provides the reader with only a partial life of Lacey and relatively few of his own words. Sutherland narrates Lacey’s travels in microscopic, painstaking detail, thanks to the voluminous journals and letters Lacey left behind. Numerous selfreflexive episodes also make it clear that Lacey and Sutherland were friends, further enhancing the biography’s level of detail (even while diminishing, to some extent, its objectivity). This level of detail is admirable—Sutherland has obviously spent a great deal of time poring over thousands of archival documents—but it only tells half the story. Despite Lacey’s ability to translate multiple languages, his vocation as a gifted language teacher, and his considerable talents as a poet, Sutherland makes the reader only dimly aware of these activities. Rather, the bulk of the book is taken up with one rarely deviating narrative of Lacey’s personal life of sex, booze, sex, drugs, run-ins with the law, and more sex. Many readers will find themselves wondering how Lacey managed to get any work done at all.

Sutherland indicates, at points, that Lacey was working, but this information usually comes in the form of a paragraph or two appended to the end of a chapter or major episode. This is disappointing, since it prevents the reader from seeing a clear connection between Lacey’s public and private lives, how his experiences as an uprooted Canadian world traveller translate into the copious amounts of poetry he was evidently writing. The reader rarely knows what Lacey was thinking or feeling as he stumbled from country to country, from bar to bar, from one sexual conquest to another, or if he experienced any profound or even semi-profound spiritual awakenings along the way. The reader sees Lacey as if performing on a stage, in a play with much nudity but few soliloquies or asides.

Sutherland does provide some of Lacey’s words, mainly in the form of short quotations from his poetry at the beginning of each chapter, intended to set the tone for that portion of Lacey’s life. These epigraphs, while showcasing the quality and variety of Lacey’s poetry, ultimately frustrate the reader because there’s too little connective material between epigraph and biography.

Lost Passport does not seem to be explicitly aimed at an academic audience, lacking as it does the apparatus of general introduction, statement of editorial principles, bibliography, endnotes, index, and the like. However, many academic readers will no doubt be interested in what amounts to a very well-researched and entertaining biography of a heretofore neglected Canadian poet. Lacey is a rare figure in Canadian literature, better known outside Canada’s borders than inside. Sutherland’s past, present, and future work on Lacey—he is currently assembling a collected letters—will help to reacquaint this prolific poet, translator, and teacher with readers in his country of birth.

—Robert G. May

As in The Malahat Review, 179, Summer 2012, 106-107