for Martin Lucas

I started out the day spinning my car into a ditch before dawn. When it was spinning I didn’t know where it was going, only that I wasn’t in control of it. There might have been a tree waiting for me, or another car, or a cliff. It was too dark to tell.

I felt a deep terror and curiosity. And later, as my car was being winched by the tow truck back up the slope to the road with me at the wheel, as if to begin the whole roller-coaster ride over again: joy.

black ice
looking for

The events in this haibun didn’t happen this morning, or any morning recently. I’d actually forgotten I’d written this, but I rediscovered it when I conducted a search of my email today for any mention of or correspondence with Martin Lucas.

Martin was the erstwhile editor of the great British haiku journal Presencehe was a very fine haiku poet, and the author of one of the most influential essays of the last decade about writing haiku: “Haiku as Poetic Spell.” He had a keen analytical mind and was one of the few people in the Western world to have received a doctorate for studying haiku. He was a kind man and a good editor; when I sent work to Martin I knew I could count on him to say something insightful about it, whether or not he chose to publish it. I say “was” because–as many of you know by now–Martin disappeared from his home in Preston, England a few weeks ago, and his body was found on a beach nearby yesterday. He was 51.

I rediscovered my haibun above when I searched my email for Martin’s name, because a couple of years ago when I wrote it, I accidentally sent it to Martin instead of to the friend with a similar name I’d meant to send it to. He must have thought this very strange–we weren’t so close that I’d ever have deliberately just sent him off a fairly personal haibun with no other explanation. But he didn’t question me about it or express confusion, just sent me back a kind, concerned message about what a frightening experience this must have been, and told me a similar anecdote about a coworker.

Martin was one of those people I always carelessly assumed I’d get to know better some day, perhaps when I (some day) made it over to the U.K., or he (some day) came to visit the U.S. He occupied a small but not insignificant place in my brain, because he’d done so much to form my haiku poetics and I admired his work in so many areas. As people do, I feel an obscure sense of irrational guilt now that he’s gone: that I didn’t make more of an effort to get to know him, and that I couldn’t, so to speak, keep his car from going out of control on the ice.


after another
failure to communicate
green china tea

–Martin Lucas, Presence 19


That’s what I mean by Poetic Spell. Words that chime; words that beat; words that flow. And once you’ve truly heard it, you won’t forget it, because the words have power. They are not dead and scribbled on a page, they are spoken like a charm; and they aren’t read, they’re heard. This is what I want from haiku: something primitive; something rare; something essential; not some tired iteration of patterns so familiar most of us can produce them in our sleep. It’s not the information content that counts, it’s the way that information is formed, cooked and combined. Poetic spells don’t tell us anything, they are something, they exist as objects of fascination in their own right. You can hold them in the light and turn them about and watch each of their facets gleam. They begin and end each reader’s unique reflection.

–Martin Lucas, “Haiku as Poetic Spell”


8 thoughts on “Off-Road

  1. lovely tribute, Melissa, & that “off-road” haibun as suggestive a link to the sad news. what it does to me–his brother’s story of hearing Martin the night/morning he left, but thinking that Martin was making tea or such. can we grow ears that hear the terrible moment, that register the alarm.

  2. You expressed my exact feelings. Martin and I were in the middle of an intellectual e-mail discussion, and I had not gotten around to answering him (not unusual because we did not talk all the time). This sadness is compounded by the fact that I had a chance to meet Martin because he recently came to the US, and I could not swing it. Now, I will never have the chance to meet him. He inspired and shaped my own haiku style, and he was a lovely, warm man. I will always regret not knowing him better.

  3. Didn’t know about the discovery of Martin’s body until I read your post. I never sent much work to him but the one time I did he was quite thoughtful and I remember feeling: this is a man to learn from. And so I have in re-reading his entire Poetic Spell essay. A sorrow on this snowy spring day. An unfairness in the air. Thanks Melissa for your writing here.

  4. Thanks Melissa. I had been hoping against hope that just by power of positive thinking we could all save Martin from whatever he thought he must do the night he left home. Oh, that it were so.

  5. Martin was a warm and sensitive soul and having just returned from his funeral I hope he was smiling down from the peaceful haven he has transcended too and realising how many lives he touched. We all wish we could have saved him for this world.

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