Exploring the art of prose


Intrinsic Spin: A Story of Vertigo by Anna Leahy

Photograph depicts a wooden spiral staircase framed by a white banister; title card for the new creative nonfiction essay, "Intrinsic Spin: A Story of Vertigo," by Anna Leahy.

Knitting is the art of linkage. Hands and needles link loop to loop until yarn becomes fabric. A special kind of magic. In “Intrinsic Spin: A Story of Vertigo,” Anna Leahy replicates this alchemy. At the beginning of her essay, she invites the reader to consider movement, speed, and velocity, as well as the difference between them. She links Earth’s orbit to head positionings, spinning a yarn to a slip of the tongue, a computer’s memory meltdown to the body’s place in the world, Ada Limón to tightrope walkers.

In her author’s note, Leahy writes that she thinks of the essay’s design as similar to the child’s game, Barrel of Monkeys, “in which the player spills a pile of plastic monkeys onto the floor, grabs an arm, and then hooks that monkey’s other arm around another monkey’s arm without touching the second monkey.” These linkages inspire both the essay’s form and function. On the surface, the linked ideas might initially seem disjointed, even confused. But brilliance lies beneath the disorder. “Any literary narrative of depth asks your brain to pull threads across the whole,” Jane Alison writes in Meander, Spiral, Explode. The reader’s thoughts “bounce across passages,” as Alison explains. Leahy accomplishes this exact effect with “Intrinsic Spin,” connecting a web of ideas to reveal the dizzying, ineffable experience of vertigo.  —CRAFT


Here’s a secret about movement: speed cares only about distance, but velocity is aware of direction.

Here’s another secret about movement: every living creature on this planet is moving fast. But the body tricks us into not noticing the planet’s movement.

Constancy is the first law of motion. Its other name is inertia, which is not to say not moving so much as not noticing. It can substitute for trust.

Earth takes a predictable year to get back to the same place. Orbit is one name for the path. Here we go again. Or still. At 67,000 miles an hour.

Vertigo can look like inebriation. It can look like possession. It often looks like nothing at all to someone else. It’s a problem with trust.

Because the ears care where the head is going, the human body senses a change in velocity even when the eyes lie.

Vertigo can make one think air has stopped moving. Sometimes, the circle of vignette closes in or tilting begins. Often, I walk as if through a wake I’ve created by moving.

Here’s another secret: the days are getting longer. This fact seems to be about time, but it is about movement, about a seemingly imperceptible change in the speed of Earth’s rotation.

I can use a specific series of timed head repositionings to tell my inner ear, Let me show you how you are wrong.

Image is a flowchart graphic of five positions of the Epley maneuver, starting at the top with the figure sitting up and looking ahead, followed clockwise by three figures lying down with different head rotations, and a fifth figure sitting up and looking down.
C mamais, CC BY-SA 3.0

To spin yarn is to spin in the transitive, as fingers transfer movement to something other than fingers. The fingers remain as they are, and the shorn coat of an animal becomes something else.

Twist is what’s done to make yarn; twist is also the yarn itself.

Vertigo is the intransitive form of spin. There’s nothing to give spin to.

In her poem A Good Story,” Ada Limón wrote, “Today, my head is packed with cockroaches, / dizziness and everywhere it hurts.” Five years before I read this poem, Ada Limón came here to read her poems aloud where I teach. She told me then that she had bouts of vertigo. It would take me another year to understand, but she had given me permission.

Yarn can be wound onto a spindle for the future. A yarn is also a story.

Then, the classroom listed like a ship I was captaining, and the students swayed like rowers.

Then, vertigo slipped my tongue with distraction at a faculty happy hour. It is a terrible thing, this lack of focus. But not as terrible as the wrong word in a conversation with people who trust words, who judge words.

Name a city that begins with A and then B and so on: Albany, Boston, Cincinnati. I know why these city names come to mind even though I know other cities better. These names are attached to one-time memories. Answering quickly is necessary for the test to work, the audiologist tells me. This task of naming seems easy. This test is not as terrible as I expected.

Dorianne Laux has a poem called “What’s Terrible” that begins with an epigraph from Ursula K. Le Guin: “It is terrible, but not very terrible.” Terrible thing, this disorientation of vertigo.

Dorianne Laux also has a poem about the moon; it’s factual. The moon is moving away from Earth, seven feet in my lifetime. I can measure that distance. I don’t know what to do with this fact of the moon’s unnoticed leaving. Is it terrible?

Start at the beginning of the alphabet. This time, name animals: I know a bird that begins with the letter A. It’s an unusual word, not an everyday bird. My delay in response demands the audiologist’s prompt. Not crocodile, but—. Of course. Alligator, I reply. But that is not what I was thinking and couldn’t say.

A slip of the tongue seems to me less terrible than a loss for words, less terrible than searching and finding nothing in the place the bird is supposed to be.

Thinking is an intractable scheduling problem, which is to say that there exists no optimal way for the brain to complete all the desired tasks in the time expected.

Thrashing describes what happens when a computer’s memory cannot store and retrieve fast enough to do all the tasks it’s been asked to complete. The computer’s performance deteriorates. It gets stuck in interruptions.

There’s redundancy built into the body’s system for orienting itself in the world. I’m supposed to trust my eyes, ears, and feet all at once. They are supposed to cover for each other if one gets interrupted. My eyes, ears, and feet are supposed to agree. Vertigo results from contradiction.

The word dizzy comes from the Old English meaning foolish. What’s a person supposed to do with the terrible foolishness of an ear’s mistake?

Thinking in contradictions is a kind of thrashing. It can look like panic or paralysis. It is movement that feels like stillness unless you’re in it.

Imagine Karl Wallenda and his seven-person chair pyramid on a tightrope. Hold your breath. Imagine the eight-person pyramid. Imagine a walk in the park a hundred feet in the air, and this is the day Karl falls to his death because his feet didn’t follow each other on the rope. Imagine Nik Wallenda, Karl’s great-grandson, walking between towers. I know these towers and the ground between, but not that stretch of rope sixty stories up, not that stretch of air. It is cold and windy. He is blindfolded. There is no safety harness, no safety net.

The brain’s plasticity is the power to change when nerves go awry. The physical therapist tells me I can be made less dizzy by the world if my brain can be taught to think about movement differently, if I can pay more attention to my feet. I can learn not to trust my ears.

What does it mean to believe I can be less terrible, to think an impeccable version of me can be created? Esmé Weijun Wang writes of “an impeccable self without disorder” that someone may try very hard to get or get back. But she says, “There may be no impeccable self to reach.” If the history of the word impeccable suggests one is unlikely to falter, to fail, to sin, then there are many ways I’ve already failed and many sins I may commit again.

Earth is a body that orbits the sun, and it is also a body that spins a thousand miles an hour. “The body / is so body,Ada Limón writes of the human body in the poem “A Good Story.” Earth is so body too, so full of cockroaches, dizziness, and hurt.

Earth’s third kind of motion is called precession, which is part of what explains the motion of stars in the night sky. Polaris has not always been Earth’s North Star. Two thousand years from now, there’s a new North Star coming, not because the stars move but because our planet wobbles.

Image is a black-and-white NASA graphic of a generic planet with a pole sticking out of both ends, a circle of arrows around the equator to indicate spin, and a circle like a halo above to show axis rotation.
NASA, public domain

What’s a space supposed to do with a body? What’s a body to do with space?

Vertigo is my ear’s understanding of precession. My ear tells my brain something not worth noticing. This self-declaration that I can understand one thing in terms of another is one way to deal with the inscrutable.

Here’s a secret: a spinning object moves faster at its widest than it does at its narrowest. Hold out your arms, and imagine the circle your fingers travel through the air as you spin like a planet. Your hands trace an equator’s path, and your head and feet are the north and south poles. Your feet barely move; you’re going nowhere. Your fingers know a different distance.

Experience is a frame of reference that fools us. We pretend our ears are just for hearing.

Twisting yarns together is called plying. To ply can mean to provide or to besiege, almost opposites of each other but not quite. To ply can also mean to travel, which is to suggest that one knows where one’s going.

If it weren’t for inertia, Earth’s three motions might be enough reason for vertigo. Inertia is supposed to let our bodies choose which movement to trust.

As I drive home from the audiologist, I think, albatross. A large seabird that glides on the wind rising from waves, that dives into water and returns to the air. A bird that hardly flaps its wings to travel hundreds of miles. A bird that always knows where it is. The bird one wears around one’s neck as punishment.

Ada Limón has a poem called “Calling Things What They Are.” In it, she writes, “To think there was a time when I thought birds were kind of boring.” I used to hardly pay attention to birds. But these past few years, my mind keeps returning to them, and like Limón, “I like to call things as they are.” Albatross, albatross, what a word, what a bird.

I move as if there must be a safety net to catch me.


ANNA LEAHY’s latest books are the poetry collections GlossWhat Happened Was:, and Aperture, as well as the nonfiction book Tumor. Her work has appeared at Aeon, Atlanta Review, The Atlantic, Bennington Review, BuzzFeed, Poetry, Scientific American, The Southern Review, and elsewhere, and her essays have won top awards from Mississippi Review, The Los Angeles Review, Ninth Letter, and Dogwood. She edits the international Tab Journal and has been a fellow at MacDowell and the American Library in Paris. Find her on Twitter at @AMLeahy.


Featured image by CJ Dayrit, courtesy of Unsplash.


Author’s Note

I’ve developed two conditions related to my inner ear: tinnitus and vertigo. Birds and the precarious state of environments were my way into tinnitus in a long essay called “Ordinary Pandemonium: A Story of Noise,” published in the Mississippi Review. But I struggled to write about vertigo—it had taken a long time to recognize what was happening as vertigo, and it’s difficult to express disorientation in a form that isn’t too dizzying. And then MacDowell gave me time and space to let my mind both wander and connect.

I had read Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative. And I had become increasingly interested in poetry that uses visual elements to convey meaning (especially working on Tab Journal with the creative director, who is a graphic designer). So, when I started writing “Intrinsic Spin,” I was thinking about lyric and visual forms in ways that challenge traditional narrative. I think of the design of this essay as the Barrel of Monkeys game in which the player spills a pile of plastic monkeys onto the floor, grabs an arm, and then hooks that monkey’s other arm around another monkey’s arm without touching the second monkey. This gets repeated, hooking monkeys—or paragraphs—together one by one in a chain. Sometimes, the chain breaks, and then I start over, tossing paragraphs in a heap and rehooking them differently.

The visual elements each explain a concept all at once that I couldn’t put into words clearly and succinctly. The reader doesn’t need to perform the Epley maneuver, for instance, but the sense of a specific orchestrated sequence of movements is important to comprehend. In elementary school, we learn that the planets of our solar system move in big loops around the Sun, which determines the length of a year, and that planets spin, which determines the length of a day, but planetary precession is not as obvious or as important to how we measure time. I want readers to have a sense of precession as a tilted, wobbling world. Science and astronomy show up in my work often and look beyond the human-made world.

The biggest surprise was when the Flying Wallendas showed up. If they hadn’t, how could I have ended this essay with the trust we have in our bodies and the world to orient us? The Flying Wallendas are that marvelous combination of mind-wandering and connection that keeps me going.


ANNA LEAHY’s latest books are the poetry collections Gloss, What Happened Was:, and Aperture, as well as the nonfiction book Tumor. Her work has appeared at Aeon, Atlanta Review, The Atlantic, Bennington Review, BuzzFeed,Poetry, Scientific American, The Southern Review, and elsewhere, and her essays have won top awards from Mississippi Review, The Los Angeles Review, Ninth Letter, and Dogwood. She edits the international Tab Journal and has been a fellow at MacDowell and the American Library in Paris. Find her on Twitter at @AMLeahy.