by Karen Salyer McElmurray
I remember that night like a painting of an off-kilter world. I was six, seven, and it was fall, our October trip home. Things in the house skittered and ticked, gnawed inside the walls, and I lay still, listening. When I opened my eyes, I saw a tangle of thin fingers scratching at the windows. Branches. Beside the window, on the wall next to my father, were streaks of brown on the wallpaper. By day I’d run my fingers along the streaks. Watermarks, my mother said, but at night I remembered the stories of my uncle Roy’s bleeding ulcer, and I could see him in this same bed, sick as a dog from drinking, my aunts whispered. Twice, three times a year, we rode three hours north, up from Harlan County to visit my mother’s people, a trip my father hated. You love them more than me, he said when they fought hard. As I sat up, the brown streaks flexed and twined and straightened in the dark. The world was unclean with coal ash and human hands. My mother said it was so.
With the fiberglass window curtains drawn, I could barely see my sleeping father’s face, his eyes small and squinty without their glasses. This was the bedroom where we always slept, one and two and three. On my other side, my mother was awake, and she laid her hand along my leg, made a shushing sound to quiet me. She swung her legs over onto the floor, and I moved to the bed’s edge, watching. We slid our feet into shoes and made our way through the open bedroom door out into the living room, where it was lighter with the pulled back curtains. She held her fingers to her lips as we tiptoed through the dining room and past the doorless room where my grandparents and uncle slept. We were quiet as we went through the kitchen and out the back door.
That night is soft with memory, tinged with coal ash tipped by the bucket beside the path we walked down the hill, my mother and me. What I remember is the huge, black sky and clouds and only a slipper of moon. Walk beside me, she said. Don’t you touch a thing. My mother feared the unclean world—mud on the path, beggar’s lice from the weeds—so I clung to her down the path. Quick bats’ shadows moved against the sky and the bare autumn branches as our feet found surety along the incline. At the end of the path, there were the rough boards and the door that swung open, the smack of scent against our faces, the smell of bodies and what they let go. I looked down into what she called nastiness, the heaps of what we had surrendered. Mind me, now, she said as she lifted me up, sat me down atop the hole with its blackness and who knew what way down there. I was to be quick, and to watch the tail of my nightgown, how it might trail in. While she sat on the other hole, I couldn’t help myself. I reached out, touched the wall, felt shapes in the wood—mountains, a hole for a moon, a world like the one outside. We listened to the trickling down until we were done.
Back up the path and beside the kitchen door again, we stood beside the house. There it smelled like the garden earth my grandmother turned with her hoe, and there was a clothesline. Towels and a shirt hung there catching the air, and beside the steps on an upturned crate, there sat a metal pan, in case the rain came. Rainwater, my mother always said, was the best thing, how it made your face and your hair so soft. In my first class at school, I had even written a story about it, one my father put it in a desk drawer because he was proud. If you don’t have a shower or a bathtub, it read, then wash yourself with the rain.There was a shallow pool of rain in the pan, but it caught what light there was, and I remember how we stood looking as something invisible fell and made rings in the water. The world was black and enormous all around us, full of all my mother feared—soot and love and the unkind mouth of God. It was a world off-kilter, one I would not understand for years and years, and we watched it shiver in the rainwater’s reflection.
The world spins and shivers in so many ways. Car lights pass closed blinds. The dog’s closed eyes move, restless in sleep. A hand holds a cigarette and trembles on the way to a mouth. A woman wakes midwinter with her heart racing, clicks the lamp on, and watches the room shiver with uncertain grief. I am forty-something, and I have driven fourteen hours east from Maryland to Kentucky, passing mountains and then pastures for race horses, and I stop at a diner for coffee and grilled cheese. I am standing by my car, keys in hand, when I look across the road at pennants on a sign at a car sales lot waving in the hot summer wind. The pennants go taut and slack, taut and slack, and presto, the world begins to spin. Clouds pass the sun at a startling speed. The pavement beneath my feet shifts and circles, and I sink down beside my car door, holding onto my knees as I listen to my ears humming.
The medical condition where a person feels as if they or the objects around them are moving when they are not is called vertigo. Ver-de-go. Be holp by backwards turning, Benvolio says in Romeo and Juliet. From early 1500s Latin vertere, vertigo means, literally, to turn—whirling while one is stationary. It is a sickness involving motion. Giddiness. Dizziness. A sensation of unsteadiness and loss of balance, the feeling of looking down from a great height, and it can be induced by a change in head position: turning over in bed, lying down in bed, looking up, stooping, or any change in head position. It can mean blurred vision, nausea, hearing loss, and a lowered level of consciousness. In 1952, Margaret Dix and Charles Hallpike at Queens Square Hospital arrived at a symptomalogical definition by their examination of some one hundred patients. Giddiness comes on, they say, when the patient lies down in bed or when she turns over in bed, or when such a positioning is taken up during the day—for instance lying down beneath a car, or in throwing the head backward to paint a ceiling.The examiner grasps the patient firmly by the head and briskly pushes her back into the critical position, thus obtaining a reliable diagnostic story.
My most recent vertigo story began on election night, 2016. I started the evening with drinks and vote-watching with friends on a farm where I stay a couple of nights each week while I’m teaching up in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. My landlords are a couple who, like myself, fully expected a big HRC win after the heat of the long political campaign. Unlike me, the landlords, Charles and Cornelia, were not necessarily HRC fans, and I had not revealed to them my musings about why it was Trump had the appeal he did—his fast-talking promises about jobs and cleaning house in Washington—for the working-class people like the ones I grew up with in eastern Kentucky. We all knew that Trump denigrated women, and I firmly believed he was, as an Australian friend said, a flash rat with a gold tooth. We also knew that Trump had prepared two election night speeches—a victory speech and a concession speech—but we were confident which victory speech we’d hear: HRC’s, delivered beneath a glass-ceilinged ballroom in NYC. By nine o’clock, all of us were on to our third glass of wine and watching the electoral votes anxiously, with HRC sliding lower and lower by the state, 209 to 244. Charles’s mouth hung open with disbelief. The bastards, he said. The bastards.
By ten o’clock, I slipped away to watch the rest of the election on my own. I crossed the big yard to the furnished cottage I rented and stood looking at the heavy clouds crossing the moon. It had been an unseasonably warm winter so far, and the air was damp, near-warm, tasting of rain. The grayness seemed to slide inside with me, where I poured one more glass of wine and then sat in bed with my laptop, live-streaming the election results as long as I could stand them. I fell asleep that way, with the laptop’s blue light, rain beginning and wind picking up across the pastures, keening as it circled the cottage.
When I woke, the blue screen had shut down, hibernating, but the room wasn’t pitch black, though it was two or three o’clock. Upstairs lights were on at the landlord’s house across the way, and the wind had died down. There was a steady rain, and I imagined threads of what might have been summer lightning in the fields, if it weren’t November. I lay still, phrases from the night before echoing inside me. If Trump wins, Charles had said, maybe it won’t be that bad. And in behind the snippets and bits of election night returns-speak in my head, there was a phrase, one in a familiar voice, my grandmother’s maybe, or a friend of hers who she used to call Leora. Witching hour. Witching hour. I sat up and swung my feet out on the bedside rug and flipped on the table lamp.
I can only describe the way the room felt as a dream made of tilting and whirling. The lamplight on the cottage wall trailed past, then picked up speed, gathering shadows and colors from the oil painting of red and blue flowers beside the chest of drawers. I tried to fix my attention on the dresser mirror, but the shine was too bright and I shut my eyes, holding onto the edges of the bed. I could still think, and I thought of the magical dream carpet in the cartoon, the surprised faces of Aladdin and his pet monkey as they soared above the lights of the desert. I counted, one and two and three, up to ten, then opened my eyes to the web of light and dark on the walls, which were still moving, quicker now. The cottage’s walls were lined with paintings, some from Cornelia’s mother, and I concentrated on one of flowers, the layers of red and blue. My breath was fast, and sweat gathered at the base of my spine as I gripped the edges of the bed. My body was heavy enough to keep me steady, but nausea gathered inside me. I breathed, in, out, waiting for the night to get still.
Researcher and ophthalmologist Francis Heed Adler offers the first descriptions in medical literature of positionally induced vertigo, and his research, combined with that of Ernest H. Barany, hypothesized that vertigo is a disorder of the otolith organs. Otoliths, also called statoconium or otoconium or statolith, are calcium carbonate structures in the inner ear, particularly in the vestibular labyrinth of vertebrates. In 1952, researchers Margaret Dix and Charles Hallpike extended the earlier work of Adler and Barany via a study of some one hundred patients at London’s Queen Square Hospital, arriving at a definitive test for positional vertigo. Otoliths. Vestibulars. Labyrinths.They say that counting of growth rings on otoliths can estimatethe age of rare types of fish. Labyrinths. Vestibulars. Otoliths. I say the words to myself like they are charms, spells, bones found in a cave. I can almost hear her, one of the patients Dix and Hallpike describe in their studies of vertigo.
She tells them how she was standing under the shower, the first time. The water roared, loud as a falls, and her heart picked up the sound, a deafening throb that followed her back to bed. She lay in the early morning light, listening. She exhaled, and her breath came out white, a shape of itself that grew larger, covered her, a heavy quilt. She spent the day like that, weighed down, waiting for the dizziness to subside, and it did, for the most part. For the next few days, she felt herself walking in someone else’s body, an observer seeing from someone else’s eyes. The earth was unsteady, at a drunken tilt, and she felt her way down the hall at a bookstore where she turned pages, looking for symptoms. Positional nystagmus of the benign positional type. The words seem redundant. It is caused, the doctors tell her, by a disorder of utricular macula. Neither the doctors nor the way they took hold of her, straightened her, turned and shifted her head, did anything to make her right. Their words told her nothing about the way lines on the street flexed and bent. The way the world sounded as if it is underwater. She wanted one word. Still.
Vertigo is by definition not just dizziness, but also is described as a disordered state of consciousness. I think of it as a sort of in-between world experienced in the middle of the night or the edge of a sidewalk or right before I turn a corner. Vertigo is a simultaneous stepping back and stepping forward, and a confusion about which direction is the stable one. I see myself at six or seven years old in the front seat of the car as we drove to Floyd County. My parents are on either side of me, their words crossing and recrossing me as they quarreled. Why, my mother wanted to know, had he taken her so far away from everything? Everything was my granny and pa’s house in Floyd County, Kentucky, its smokehouse and well, its bottom land and its house of five rooms. My father was a school teacher, then a state administrator. He’d taken her and himself both out of the world they came from, set our family on the high road out, and yet my mother was always longing for where she came from, always looking back to roads home. It was a dizzying situation, to be neither here nor there.
For most of my life I, too, have been dislocated. I’ve moved some thirty-seven times. I’ve lived in eight states, fifteen cities, dozens of houses and apartments, driven an array of cars and trucks. When I last moved, I packed up eighty-some boxes of books, twenty-two boxes of memorabilia, including postcards and napkins with the beginnings of poems, crystals from old chandeliers, and outdated fortunes from Chinese cookies. I have been a maid, a landscaper, a cook, a trail crew worker. I have been adjunct, lecturer, assistant professor, visiting professor, associate professor. I am on some fast track forward, and I hold onto the edges as my life moves and moves. I write stories that are poems, poems that are stories, novels that float and drift in time. I am a roadie, a pack rat, as disordered as they come. I am that child holding her mother’s hand as we trudge the path back up from an outhouse in the dark. I am still standing beside her, watching the world’s reflection trembling in a pan of rainwater.
In 1978, Gerry Conway, Trevor Von Eeden, and Vince Colletta introduced a new character into the DC Comics universe: Count Vertigo. Count Vertigo, last descendent of a royal family ruling the small eastern European count of Vlatava, first appeared in Star City, where he tried to steal back the jewels his parents had sold when they escaped to England after the war. Victim of a hereditary inner ear defect that affected his balance, the Count had an electronic device implanted in his right temple that corrected his balance. And then—voilà!—Vertigo learned that he could distort the perceptions of others. Donning a green and black costume inscribed with concentric circles, Vertigo had the power to alter lives. Up from down? Right from left? Right from wrong? Count Vertigo embarked on a life of balance-altering crime.
The Count’s ability to tinker with his inner ear device led him to duels with Black Canary and Green Arrow, but his long-range disordering skills could, in fact, have been throwing lives off-kilter for years. Was it Count Vertigo, hard at work with the dizzying promises of the last presidential election? On the one hand, promises to West Virginia and Pennsylvania coal miners. They’ll start work again! Be proud once again to be miners! At the same time, Peabody, the nation’s largest coal company, slid into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, following at least fifty others in the industry in the last few years, including Arch Coal, Patriot Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, and Walter Energy. In West Virginia—the heart of coal county—production has hit lows not seen since the strikes of the late 1970s, losing more than thirty-five percent of its coal jobs since 2011. But the power of Count Vertigo is far-reaching, if we look at the range of vertigo sufferers. Politicians. Sports figures. Writers. Visual artists. The likes of Emily Dickinson, Philip K. Dick, Peggy Lee, and Ryan Adams are all vertigo sufferers. No one, it seems, is safe.
Ginger has been used for centuries in Asia to combat seasickness. Legend has it that commercial fishermen at sea would chew on a slug of ginger root to ward off bouts of seasickness. It’s quite common today, says Dr. James Duke, an authority on medicinal plants at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to see people in boats around Hong Kong munching on preserved ginger. Other lore suggests that dew can be gathered early in the morning and snuffed up the nostrils as a cure for vertigo, while other sources say that dew gathered from the leaves of fennel or celandine is an even more powerful remedy.
In my case, vertigo has been treated by the administration of powerful drugs. Bonine. Dramamine. Meclizine. Scopolamine. Promethazine. Metoclopramide. Diazepam. Lorazepam. The drugs are a litany of n’s and m’s, a veritable song of a’s and o’s and zines. The drugs are available in the form of tablets that melt under the tongue like a soothing host. In the form of gel caps and neat triangular pills. They come in prescription bottles and in tidy vials easily slipped out of a bag for ingestion in the midst of a crowded party, or tapped circumspectly from a tube underneath the disguise of a conference table. After a recent bout of vertigo, I was prescribed three meclizine tablets per day, and as much sleep as possible. After two tablets, one early morning and one at noon, I sank into a kind of opiate stupor in which I dreamed of other times and houses and highways and drove half-remembered roads, undizzied and inert.
But Half Somersault Canalith Repositioning, also known as the Foster Maneuver, has become the ritual with which I am most comfortable. When vertigo arrives unaware, as it most often does, the maneuver is a routine of being on one’s knees, turning one’s head at that position, then again, half-raised, then again, raised and head back, toward the ceiling. There are videos and instructions, but I have come to think of this maneuver as an act of kneeling and bowing, almost an act of supplication. Sometimes, room spinning, I kneel and shut my eyes and imagine the churches I went to so long ago. You’d come forward for the call to prayer, and sometimes you’d pray along with a dozen other people, all our voices rising, longing for them to lay their hands on your bowed head and bless you. To heal the off-kilter world, I remember it, remake it. Memory is a secret pact, one between me and then.
A medical report published in July 1990 contends that Vincent van Gogh was not mad, as has been speculated, but had a painful inner ear disorder that caused him to cut off his left ear and send it to a prostitute. Van Gogh himself writes to his brother of protracted, disabling attacks of what he calls vertige, accompanied by auditory hallucinations and aversion to light and movement. During these attacks, he writes, I feel a coward before the pain and suffering. He also writes of long periods of calm, symptom-free, with no sign of the debilitating vertige.
I like to imagine van Gogh waking, pushing open the windows to extraordinary silver white light. He breathes the light in, holds it in his belly until it is an urgency he cannot ignore, a desire already summoning a field of sunflowers. He is so full of light he leaves his room quickly, no time for his bowl of coffee, his tear from a loaf of bread. In my imaginings, I follow him down the streets of stones and corners, follow as he walks past the last house. Children play beneath trees, and the sound of laughing drifts after him, the laughter stretching thin as it reaches after him as he hurries past the red barn. A young woman sits there on a three-legged stool, her dress so blue he can taste it. The morning by then is drenched with that blue, and he is thankful for the web of clouds that softened the sky as he hurries, a lane full of houses, then two more fields and he is there, at the edge of a yellow world.
Saffron. Ochre. Amber. He closes his eyes and recites every yellow name he knows, but no word is enough and by then, the light is straight overhead and so strong he can think of nothing but his hands. He reaches and parts the sharp leaves. He plunges in. He strides. He heads for the center of everything, the center of yellow light. But of course there is no center. He walks and parts leaves, and his hands are burning with fine leaf-cuts. By then his eyes and his ears and his heart are so full of light he is blinded. The world moves with sunlight, a color that fills his mouth, and he wants to sing it, but it is the world that hums, and his ears are full of sound. The heavy yellow blossoms themselves are only shapes, lines, circles, and threads of light that weave around him, lift him up, set him down again, spinning. He grabs hold as he falls into a world made of the motion of sunflowers. Days pass and he writes to his brother, Life passes like this, time does not return, but I am dead set on my work.
The world shivers and spins. Climate change denied, the NPR commentator says. Immigration denied from six Muslim-majority countries. Major health care policy denial in the works. Subtle denials for LGBTQ workers. Miners who voted this administration in will not find a brave new world of coal. For weeks following the presidential election, I wake regularly at three o’clock scrolling in the dark past the news of such disorder. I prefer reading news on my phone these days, the quick movement past enmity after enmity, but this morning as I scroll, I can feel the edges of it. The phone casts shadows on the wall past my bed, and they quiver, a sign. My heart picks up, fluttering, skipping beats, and I breathe—in, out—calming myself. I have grown used to the way vertigo sneaks in, how alert my body has become to the disruptions of its rhythms. My ears are alert for sounds, the call of any night birds, the bend and scratch of branches against the cottage walls, the hum from inside my brain.
I have learned to recognize the signs of vertigo’s approach, and if I am still enough, breathe, and wait, sometimes it drifts on past, a visitor waving farewell. I lay the phone down beside me, turn on my side, try to focus, but the world feels huge. The four corners of the room in the farmhouse cottage are round with shadows, and from the window in the room beyond this one, the edges of light from the field flicker. I focus, remembering the headlines I’ve read on my phone, one headline amidst the chatter, a piece I read. The sky has changed. Inuit elders say that the earth has shifted, wobbled. The elders declare that the position of sun, moon, and stars have all changed, causing changes in the temperature. The sun is higher, warmer. The wind is stronger, the weather harder to predict. The world, they say, is now tilted.
If I act quickly, I tell myself, I can keep the vertigo at bay. In my bedside drawer is a vial of the meclizine. Beside my bed is a clear space of floor where I can kneel, maneuver my head to the right, to the right again, until undizziness comes. Or maybe I can get up in time. I can feel my way across the room to the painting I admire most. I love to stand in front of it and study the red petals of the flowers, the solid, slender vase. I could get up now, if I’m quick, and feel my way to that painting in the dark, lay my hands against the thick edges of the paint, the lines and swirls, the shadows and spaces and light and dark. Between the red, painted world in the dark, and the huge, tilting world beyond, there just might be a still space, one that I can slide into and hold onto for a little while.
Of course, what happens on nights like that, on nights when vertigo happens, is that I am spun backwards in time, taken back and back. That one night. Was there a half moon? Did it shine between the branches of the stone pear tree in the bottom land by the outhouse? Did light shimmer and break in the tin pan of rainwater for washing my mother’s hair? The night was a broken mirror in the dark, a world made of fragments that I reorder into beauty in my memory. But it was not. That world was a rusted-out wringer washer beside a five-room house, the bodies of butchered hogs hanging up in the smokehouse. My grandmother’s palms, red from sulfur water, hands red from the shirts she scrubbed, her back bent over a wash board. That world was hard, lean, poor. By day, my grandfather was a deep miner, as were my uncle, and my cousins, and their cousins, and so on unto now, a broken world made of who owns what and who does not. And at forty, fifty, I am still climbing that path back up in the dark. Don’t touch anything, my mother says, and I am still trying to obey. Climb the hill back up from all of it, and don’t look back. And yet I do, again and again and again. I am dizzy with the looking back and ahead, back and ahead, to who I was and who I am not and who I am.