We Can Be Heroes: The Winter Poetry Olympics Part VIII: Curling and the Poetics of Friction

By Lytton SmithFebruary 20, 2014

TEAM GB has slipped down the rankings, in both the Men’s and Women’s competitions. Defeats to Norway and Switzerland respectively have left progression to the semi-finals — and a chance of the medals — on uncertain ground.    


Slipping, physicists will tell you, is the presence of relative linear motion: two surfaces moving in respect to one another, and likely in different directions. The center (of mass) will not hold, as the poet remarked. Friction tethers us, keeps us in contact with the world, our tactile surroundings, each other. Curling, like poetry, is an exercise in often minute amounts of friction.


Put another way: although curling ice is pebbled, rougher than we might expect; it’s also slick with water. The thrown stone won’t continue forever — air gradually resists it — but it’s surprisingly easy to cast it through the house and beyond scoring. A thin film of water, as the scientist Mark Shegelski pointed out in a podcast for Scientific American in 2010, affects the front of the stone more than the back, causing it to curl in certain ways. The ways the stone and surface resist one another affect direction as much as speed and distance. The curler must know this in her arm, in the alignment of her body as she releases the stone. Her’s is not a science lesson; it is a knowledge of muscle and sinew. 


The poem knows this, too. Verse reverses, the saying goes, like the plough furrowing and returning. The line as much breaks as about-faces. The start of Michael Donaghy’s ‘Midriver’: 

and is a bridge: Now to either then:
child to lolly: spark across the wire:
lover to the target of desire:
Lambeth to Westminster: back again.

Call it a caesura: the colons dividing these lines impel them forward even as they give them reason to pause. We’re heading for the target (the house, desire) even as we’re looking back across the wire, the bridge, “now to either then,” the then that just happened or could have happened had we done things differently, gone “back again” or not.

The line’s linear the way relative linear motion is linear: other forces act upon it. There’s slip and friction. From them come sound and meaning. 


In his 2009 article “The Sports Science of Curling: a Practical Review,” John L. Bradley notes that curling is “the only sport in which the trajectory of the projectile can be influenced after it has been released by the athlete.” Whatever spin the pitcher applies to the baseball exists at the moment it leaves the hand. That’s true, too, of a curling thrower, but she has seconds, two team-mates with brushes who furiously scrub the ice just ahead, slightly to the left or right of, the stone. Smoothing the ice, the sweepers aim to keep the stone going, to affect its trajectory. They’re working away at velocity: at where the stone’s going, at the rate it travels.


In Srikanth Reddy’s “Second Circle,” Ixion speaks during a brief respite from his spoked wheel:

It’s turning without me. One misses the halo, the steel
gear-teeth at the spring, the way the world flips
now, darling—it’s Time. Strap me back on that wheel.

The spun body wants to return to motion. If here iambic penameter’s what seems to keep up our velocity, the thrumming da-DUM of the rhythm towards that closing rhyme, it’s in fact also what trips us up, slows us down. Friction: like the “gear-teeth” a mouthful at the spring, like the urgent insistence of the “now” as an extra stress-beat in the third line. The poetic line, in the right hands, incorporates its own resistance, its specific curvature. 


Are the poem’s readers its sweepers, there to alter the line, as the thrower wants or no?


Halfway through their clash with Norway, Team GB’s David Murdoch slides along the hack, releases his stone from the hog line. He’s at an angle, looking to have his throw curl back in, between Norwegian stones. You can hear his guttural calls down the sheet as his sweepers brush hard and fast at the ice, looking to eke the stone further on. And though he’s got the curve, Murdoch’s throw is light. Friction brings the stone to a halt shy of the house.

This, sometimes, is how it ends, the line petering out. (To peter out: to become exhausted. Nineteenth century miners’ slang, creatively traced to the use of saltpeter, a key gunpowder ingredient, in mining.) The hope is to cast with a heft and swerve that brings us home precisely, to whatever poise or collision awaits in the target. Two games left a-piece, Team GB’s men and women are hoping to find their length, back on the wheel, back again.


Lytton Smith is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University.

image: Jennifer Jones CC canada.com

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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