On Fencing by Sarah Blake, from the Los Angeles Review of Books, August 2, 2012

August 2, 2012

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.


One Response to “On Fencing by Sarah Blake, from the Los Angeles Review of Books, August 2, 2012”

  1. 239034 194018Lovely sharp post. Never considered that it was that effortless. Praises to you! 823556


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