We Can Be Heroes: The Winter Poetry Olympics Part IX: On Domestic Labor

By Lytton SmithFebruary 21, 2014

We Can Be Heroes: The Winter Poetry Olympics Part IX: On Domestic Labor

CURLING AT SOCHI could not be closer: going into the final day’s qualifiers, as many as six of the Women’s teams could have tied for the remaining two semi-final places. Though the standings ended up straightforward, with reigning world champions Britain joining Canada, Sweden, and Switzerland, the British then lost to Denmark in their final game, a sign of how close they’d come to going home.

Meanwhile, Britain and Norway — they of the fanciful pants — end up playing a zipline-taut tiebreaker for a place in the semi-finals, a rematch of their earlier tie, decided 7-6 in Norway’s favor. Tied 4-4, Norway has the hammer in the 9th, and a single point edges them into a lead. In the 10th, it all comes down to the last stone, a situation not unlike that faced by Liz Muirhead against Canada earlier this week: skip David Murdoch can take the simple shot, secure a draw, and hope to win in the next round against the hammer, or he can play the sort of shot curling lore thrives on.

Red Dwarf fans will know how Lister (drunkenly) deflects an asteroid from the Earth’s path using the skills he learned playing pool (a sport, he argues, that’s impossible to play sober). There’s no alcohol flying around here, but something similarly madcap afoot. Murdoch opts for a sequence of ricochets, gliding his yellow stone into another of his earlier stones, and that stone onto a Norwegian stone, which collides with another Norwegian stone before both edge out of the house. Team GB scores a breath-taking two points — on buses around the U.K., 3-G enabled Brits are leaping out of their faintly-cushioned seats, tweeting about it — that take them into the semi-finals.

As Murdoch releases the stone, the commentator’s saying, “There’s nothing he can do now; it’s the sweepers who’ve got it.” It’s the sweepers who’ve occupied my attention. I’m wondering about other sport metaphors drawn from domestic labor. Soccer has its sweeper, too: a player who stays at the back, ready to ‘mop up’ the attackers, as the commentators’ cliché goes. In the case of curling, the metaphor is literal. The sweepers’ brushes once were brooms, corn-haired and as like to clean your floors as slick ice.

This sweeping is a frayed metaphor then, at best: what’s the tenor, what’s the vehicle? Just what is being, however briefly, translated into something new? I’ve begun to watch the sweepers’ posture and not their brush-heads, wondering if a straightened back, bent knee hamstrings would suit de-gunking my wintered porch’s flagstones. While the Ski Halfpipe has descended into concussion (get well, Rowan Cheshire), the curling’s taken me back to the domestic.

I think of Lyn Hejinian founding Tuumba Press on the back of working as a cleaning lady for a local printer in Willits, CA. “Printing ain’t for girls,” the owner told her before hiring her. An athlete is, by definition, competing for a prize, and in the economy of poetry book prizes, what might we make of that? We won’t find analogies, not here, but maybe we’ll find a question about how we move into and from the usual spaces of our life. Do we let the poetic exist outside the bus routes that take us from our rented apartments? “Invention is essential to every aspect of a life of writing,” adds Hejinian, her job “invented” as a way of becoming a poet, a publisher, on or beyond the perimeters of language.

On the eve of Sochi, British Prime Minister David Cameron used a speech encouraging the British delegation to argue against Scottish independence from the rest of Britain (a public referendum will decide later this year). Cameron’s metonym was Team GB, riding on its achievements from London 2012. Team GB, Cameron explained, was a sign of what ‘we’ can achieve together, what ‘we’ will lose if Scotland presumes to forge its own path.

Like many British success stories, curling is a distinctly Scottish affair; also the telephone, the steam engine, the bicycle, radar, penicillin. Yet that doesn’t mean it and they aren’t also British. Curling traces its roots to 1688, the year England signed into law its Bill of Rights, confirming wife-and-husband team Mary and William as joint rulers of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Legend has it the sport first started in the small town of Kinross, from where the father of current Women’s skip Eve Muirhead hails. Some claim an independent Scotland would have been in the top five of the per-capita medal tables in London 2012. That supposes though that Scottish athletes such as Andy Murray, who flew the Union Jack after winning his gold medal, would prefer to be Scottish rather than British at the Olympics.

For all these reasons, the metonym that equates Team GB to Great Britain doesn’t hold weight, whether used to celebrate our collaborative games—Scots winning at curling, the English at the skeleton, all under the banner of Britain—or to signal our special excellences, our independent futures (the English still haven’t won Wimbledon since 1936, if you’re splitting hairs or countries).

I’ve breath half-held as I watch again Murdoch’s unlikely shot. The commentator was wrong: though it’s the line of the curler’s body that guides the stone, it’s his barked commands that guide the sweepers. At the same time, they’re leading him, too. There’s an intricate conversation between the pattern of their brushing, the line of the stone and the increasingly-distant skip’s voice. By the time the stone crashes or slows to a halt, its destination will have been inevitable. Right now though, in the slowed time of sport where the play’s still underway, anything could happen.

We won’t make sport explain the lives we lead. Take Cameron’s logic far enough and you have to disband the English soccer team to form a British one, combine the Jets and the Giants, and so on. And though the ghosts of Dickens’ char-women, of today’s low-waged Polish cleaners—almost always women—hover over the shoulders of curling’s sweepers, there’s no neat metaphor to be had.

What we have instead is a suggestion, a moment of pause, like the admitted falsity of the simile, that in likening two things, signals their distance. Team GB is like Great Britain but also not it. Curling’s sweepers are like cleaners and so very much not them. Everything is playing out in arenas sponsored by fast-food chains that also sponsor the rise in obesity. In a country that would celebrate the achievements of athletes but not the lives they lead, the loves they’ve chosen. As I write, Vladimir Luxuria, Europe’s first openly transgender politician, is arrested for holding a sign saying ‘Gay is OK’. Has offense ever been so mildly taken?

Heading into the final days of curling, where the medals will be decided, I’m hoping sport can occupy a space that never quite settles between the ludic and the domestic, the private and the public, the communal and the hermetic. Or, as Lynn Melnick wrote elsewhere on this site, “This isn’t a boycott; it’s a puzzlement.” It’s an event that might see us needing something precipitous and indeed headlong, the kind of leap of faith the curling stone’s destined for, the kind of laborious, inglorious teamwork that comes from a voice asking the sweepers to guide granite over ice.


Lytton Smith is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University. He is the author of a book of poems, The All-Purpose Magical Tent, and two translated novels from the Icelandic.

image: Scottish Women's Curling Championship 2013. Euan Morrison/flickr

LARB Contributor

Lytton Smith is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University. He is the author of a book of poems, The All-Purpose Magical Tent, and two translated novels from the Icelandic.


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