Reviewed by Giskin Day, Senior Teaching Fellow, Imperial College London
Many people, including me until I read Katrina Bramstedt’s book, mistakenly use ‘vertigo’ to describe a fear of heights. The correct term for this is ‘acrophobia’. Vertigo is a serious and disabling symptom of a constellation of inner-ear disorders that describes a disorientating, spinning sensation, often accompanied by nausea.
Trapped in my own labyrinth: poetry spawned by vertigo is a collection of 50 or so verses divided into two parts, ‘Illness’ and ‘Recovery’. In the preface, Bramstedt explains that the poems were written as a form of personal therapy but also ‘to show others, especially the otolaryngology profession, a glimpse of the suffering of a patient with vestibular dysfunction’. If this sounds like someone who knows their nystagmus from their neuritis, it is because the author is a clinical ethicist with extensive experience of dealing with matters medical.
As a description of symptoms, the short poems are very effective. They describe difficulties in sleeping (‘I’d like to turn over / But my vertigo won’t let me’: p.18). Chronic nausea caused a complete lack of appetite, described in the poem ‘Straws’ (‘I am like the straws that feed me / Each arm, thin as a straw / Each calf, thin as a straw’: p.20). As successful medications are tried, the side-effects are also catalogued in verse.
In the recovery section, Bramstedt tells the story of flying to Italy (a daunting prospect for someone exquisitely sensitive to motion sickness) and being treated by the Semont manouver, a vigorous manipulation of the head which causes crystals in the ear to move to an area of the inner ear where they no longer cause vertigo. Happily, the treatment is a complete success.
I’m sure Bramstedt would be the first to acknowledge that the poems won’t be taking up the time of poetry prize judges anytime soon. They are ‘forensic’ rather than lyrical, their meanings explicit rather than being freighted with nuance. Few lines consist of more than five words. Metaphors are used sparingly in the text, although the well-chosen photographs do serve as visual metaphors very effectively, e.g. a poem called ‘Dr. Pecci’ describing the hope of a cure he proffers, is nicely illustrated by a photograph of a life belt.
For medical humanities teachers and researchers, however, the book might benefit from a bit more contextual commentary about the process of writing for therapy, especially in the midst of suffering. The ‘resources’ section at the end of the book gives just three organisations associated with vertigo, so there is room for development there. The poems cannot withstand removing them from the context of the whole story: they need to be read as a sequence.
Some books are eminently suited to e-publishing and Katrina Bramstedt’s book is definitely one of them. Its availability as an e-book makes it much more likely to reach its niche audience. The photographs and poems are nicely laid out for a tablet screen.
This book does exactly what it says on the tin: it gives those experiencing or attempting to treat vertigo an insight into the subjective experience of living with the condition.
Bramstedt KA. Trapped in my own labyrinth: poetry spawned by vertigo (revised edition). Gold Coast, Australia: Salvataggio Press 2014. Available from https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/trapped-in-my-own-labyrinth/id928994688?mt=11