by Mary Jean Chan


At the age of thirteen, I wielded a blade because I had a firm grip, I was in love with Shakespeare, and the school team needed an épéeist. When my mother flew to Linz to watch me go 3–4 down against a former champion, she gripped the railing until her marriage ring was folded into flesh.


You never duel against the same person, even if it is the same person. On the piste, once the blades are tilted upwards to signify respect, you recalibrate to thwart their every move. She was disarmed by my tears, a timeout to breathe through the yellowing bruise on my pale, yellow skin.


Changing into school uniform felt like cross-dressing. I took my time: removing mask, then chest protector, lingering at the breeches. The day I learnt to lunge, I began to walk differently, saw distance as a kind of desire. Once, my blade’s tip gently flicked her wrist: she said it was the perfect move.

Parry riposte

My greatest weakness: the riposte. In the changing room, the girl I was about to duel said I smelled of bitter gourd. We were practicing the flèche. Inevitably, I collided with her, a blur of entangled blades. I glimpsed her wry expression through our masks’ steel mesh: her gleaming, smiling lips.

Grip and point control

French or pistol grip: one offers stability, the other more room for surprise. Before I came out to the world, I asked myself: French or pistol grip? Now, you say: You’re a great lover. Thank years of hard work on point control – how two fingers manoeuvre the blade’s tip – a flurry of sickle moons.


An earlier version of this poem titled ‘The Fencer’ was published in The Poetry Review, Volume 108, No 2, Summer 2018.