Beautiful, moving essay on fencing, poetry, and so much more. Here is the link to the original with the accompanying photos.
by Sarah Blake
The Los Angeles Review of Books – August 2, 2012
Picture the fencers. Picture them, without their gear, covered in bruises. All the weapons leave bruises, from thrusts, flicks, and the sabre’s slash. They leave welts as well.
When I fenced in high school, we were proud of the marks. Mostly, it didn’t hurt to get them. Hurt isn’t the right word because it feels good to hit someone, to be hit, in a bit of flesh that gives to the point.
I don’t mean to sound masochistic or sadistic, but the pleasure exists. And I was never interested in fencing for the grace or technique of it. I was competitive, physical, and enjoyed the fight.
Even now, some 10 years later, I remember how it feels to land the point of my foil in someone’s side, to turn my hand, to push so the blade bends out to the side, to understand the belly anew, as a soft target.
Some parts of the body are protected. Women wear a chest plate, made of plastic, and shaped like breasts, as if women wear perky Victoria’s Secret bras while they fence, instead of sports bras that flatten them. Even in the Olympics you can see these rounded cups through the lame and jacket.
As a poet, sometimes I feel this way, that I’ve geared up like a poet, but that my lines about motherhood, about sex, my method of engagement, my very words, have flagged me as a woman poet, and then I’m standing there with plastic breasts that are the same size and shape as every other woman poet.
But if our breasts matter at all, our breasts are different.
Only one person, that I know of, has died from fencing. Vladimir Viktorovich Smirnov. He was the gold medalist in men’s Individual Foil at the 1980 Summer Olympics. In 1981, he won the World Championships. In 1982, he returned to the World Championships and fenced with Matthias Behr.
During the bout, Behr lunged, landed his point on Smirnov’s chest, the blade bent, as it should, but then snapped, and Behr’s forward motion continued, driving the broken blade through Smirnov’s mask and into his brain. While death was not immediate, death did come.
Safety precautions changed. So changed the metals of the weapons, the mesh of the masks. But I know, maybe all fencers know, it could happen again. The full force of the body, the power of forward momentum, the frequency of broken blades, the mesh still only mesh, and our fragile faces.
Poetry is dangerous. It can be. We don’t typically use the word danger. We use words like risks and stakes. The risks of the poet and the stakes of the poem. But danger is implicit, sometimes explicit.
I’ve always valued the danger in poetry. I might value it above all else. Be it a weakness or a strength, it is a symptom of my fighting heart which led me to fencing in the first place.
When I fenced, I always felt the connection to sword fighting, to duels. The fights to the death, or just to first blood. A mere scratched arm. Honor and disgrace doled out at once.
Sometimes the Olympics, with its rules and lights and wired bodies, hides this connection to fencing’s history.
On July 30th, 2012, the rules required a young woman sit on the piste for about an hour while she waited for the results of an appeal. She cried much of the time.
Articles said she “broke down in tears,” “was reduced to tears,” “was in a flood of tears.” Some mock her and some defend her.
To me, she sat as if at the foot of the world and hid nothing from it. And while challenges of judges are common in most sports, it was still brave of her to compel the deliberations, to sit and continue sitting.
But for a time, her seated, weeping body, lit up on the piste, ruined my romance with fencing.
This year, I’m watching most of the games with my 14-month-old son. I’m happy to report that fencing had him transfixed, at least for one bout.
The first time I watched Olympic fencing was when my coach played VHS tapes of men’s Individual Foil. I thought they had special foils, different from my own, because theirs whipped about wildly as if they were not made of metal. But it is just the strength of the men’s arms. I was in awe.
I read today, “the tip of a fencing blade is widely considered the second fastest moving object in sport, behind a marksman’s bullet.” Awe is still the right word. And perhaps awe is what my son experienced as he watched that bout from my lap, quiet and still.
I pretended to fence my son with my finger. “Chh, chh, chh,” I said as I moved my finger between four and six. Then I poked him.
I asked him, “Are you going to be a really great fencer one day?”
And he answered, “Uh-huh” — a word, a perfect sound, that he’s only been making for a few days.
It will not be hard to encourage him. Peter Pan’s dagger against Captain Hook’s sword.The Princess Bride. When he’s older, The Three Musketeers and Cyrano de Bergerac.
It will be harder, I worry, to foster a love of poetry in him. But another part of me thinks he will find poetry as I have found it: threatening, urgent, and utterly magnetic.
April 17, 2010
The most recent version of the Poetry Fridays email from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation is a beautiful and well-written essay by Martin Farawell, Program Director of Poetry, called, “Where Poetry Begins”.
I reproduce this essay below with the suggestion that, if this is at all of interest to you, follow the link at the bottom back to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation web site and explore what they have to offer. Especially, notice the upcoming poetry festival scheduled for October in Newark, NJ, USA. I have a tending a couple of these festivals in the past and can attest that they are wonderful.
Poet Heather McHugh has pointed out that in all the photographs of 9/11, none of the witnesses covered their eyes. Instead, they covered their mouths. Their bodies said what their words could not: What they were seeing was unspeakable.
In the days and weeks following, newspaper editorial offices across the country were swamped with poems. Long-experienced editors had never seen anything like it.
Where speech stops, where syntax shatters, where prose fails is where poetry begins.
When we are most profoundly moved, our syntax not only shatters, it shatters into rhythm. We stammer and stutter and repeat ourselves. Our language, illogical and irrational and emotional, is rhythmic and repetitious.
“I love you,” is prose: clear, simple, direct, and completely understandable, but utterly inadequate to the task of conveying profound love. The instant we start, as we inevitably do, to repeat ourselves out of awareness of the inadequacy of this language to convey our meaning—“I love you. I love you. I really really love you!”—we’ve fallen into rhythm and repetition.
In any extreme—of horror, mourning, terror or ecstasy—our speech becomes rhythmic. In our most primitive, pre-verbal responses, sobbing or laughing, our entire bodies are wracked by rhythm. Shakespeare understood this. Lear’s “Howl howl howl howl howl” as he cradles his dead daughter is likely the most perfectly natural line ever written.
And yet, rhythm has also always been the gateway to the spiritual realm. All spells, incantations, rituals, and prayers are rhythmic and repetitious. The goal of chanting, in a war dance, a rite of passage, or a celebration of the mass, is to influence or communicate with the higher power, even if, as in many meditation practices, the higher power sought is within us.
All these ancient rituals originated in a time when it was believed that breath is the source of inspiration because spirit and breath are one: We expire (exhale and die); we inspire (inhale and are filled with spirit). Spiritus, the Latin word for breath, is the root of spirit and inspiration.
But this direct experience of a higher power has always required what modern psychology would describe as a letting go of the ego: that is, of that formulation our consciousness has created and named the self. Our consciousness fights like the devil to avoid this letting go. It is frightening to explore who we are without our usual habits, fears and concerns, to go beyond the narrow limits of what we’re willing to know about ourselves. Who are we in the unknown, that place made entirely of our ignorance? Almost all mystical traditions are rooted in exploring this question, as are all the arts.
All ancient spiritual traditions used rhythm in some way. Somehow they understood to be set free of the self, we must step off into that deeper place rhythm opens up in us. That place is the source of our humanity, where we are both visceral and spiritual beings, where we discover that we are the unknown, that, as Melville wrote in White Jacket, “We ourselves are the repository of the great mystery.”
On the first anniversary of 9/11, a memorial concert was scheduled to be broadcast live from Liberty State Park, just across the river from where the Twin Towers had stood. Severe thunderstorms forced the cancellation of the concert. Instead, the film of the rehearsal was aired. With ground zero as a backdrop, the New Jersey Symphony played before an amphitheatre that contained almost exactly one empty seat for every person who had died.
As Verdi’s “Requiem” rose into the clear sky, I thought of all the hours the assembled musicians had to work to master their instruments—whole lifetimes devoted to music—and of all the hours they had to rehearse together to become a symphony. And then I thought of other lifetimes, those devoted to planning the murders of complete strangers. We are the creatures who make music. And make death.
To attempt to speak of this, to try to step outside of ourselves and understand why, is where poetry, theater, music, art begin.
Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
* * *
The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark is October 7 – 10
For more information, visit the Poetry website.
Poetry Poetry Fridays 2010 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival National Poetry Month
October 2, 2009
Today is the 130th birthday of Wallace Stevens the great modernist poet born in Reading, PA, USA.
One must have a mind of winter To regard the frost and the boughs Of the pine-trees crusted with snow; And have been cold a long time To behold the junipers shagged with ice, The spruces rough in the distant glitter Of the January sun; and not to think Of any misery in the sound of the wind, In the sound of a few leaves, Which is the sound of the land Full of the same wind That is blowing in the same bare place For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
THE SNOW MAN
BY WALLACE STEVENS
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
February 13, 2009
100 POEMS, 100 DAYS
The day before the inauguration we sent out a call to poets we admire to write poems that respond, however loosely, to the presidency, the nation, the government or the current political climate. More than one hundred American poets responded immediately. The first 100 poets were each assigned one of President Obama’s first hundred days in office, and each will write a poem reflecting on the state of the nation and the world on that day. A new poem is posted every day.
As of this post, they are up to number 25. Great idea!