Can you think of a place you would never go back to, if you had the choice? Can you think of a place you could never go back to—a place where you are no longer welcome?
In her book-length lyric essay There Was Nothing Left But Gold, estranged from her family and recently disowned by her mother, Abby Hagler interrogates her identity; the shifting and historic landscape of her home state of Nebraska; the landscape of her relationship with her mother; and the landscape of her own body in the absence of her family, in the presence of their collective ghost.
Despite the hypnotic gold of the landscape, not many of Hagler’s memories of home are sepia-toned nor rose-tinted. She writes honestly, unflinchingly, rigorously about intergenerational trauma and inheritance as much as she writes about the splintering of child from parent and the possibilities of liberation and change, constellating theory with personal experience with cultural critique, questioning the received narratives from her mother about who she is, who she could be, who she should have been.
In the tradition of the essay, Hagler loops and circles, dis- and re- assembles concepts; she employs juxtaposition, digression, outside research, and a subtle weave of details that culminate gradually with sudden bursts of insight. Her repetition of words and images—haunt, ghost, silence, landscape, gold—create their own kind of map or poem of Hagler’s assaying, the ephemera of an emotional journey.
Of this list, ghosts and haunting—with their variable cultural connotations and conceptualizations in other fields, such as philosophy—come to permeate the essay with ideas of breath, thought, returns, and the fluctuating possibilities of silence and nostalgia. In describing a haunting, Hagler, perhaps wittingly, describes her own project: “A haunting has no timeline. It is a book that is written, then taken apart. A structure in which it is easy to continue to wander, like the tallgrass itself.”
Written in three sections and forty-nine packed pages, Hagler’s essay features few indicators of chronology. It is an essay anchored in its ideas, yes, but also in a particular place, in a particular landscape—Hagler’s home in Nebraska with its fields of rippling tallgrasses.
But because Hagler cannot go home home, the essay begins in Red Cloud, NE, home of American author Willa Cather, with whom Hagler establishes a companionship verging on kinship some one-hundred years after Cather published books such as O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark. Both Cather and Hagler resist, if not outright reject, the narratives forced upon them by their mothers. Each leaves, Cather for the east coast and Hagler for Colorado. And yet, despite their apparent escapes from places they never felt quite welcome, never quite felt like they belonged, each writes of and elevates their shared geographic landscape. In a quest to understand this haunting—whether of the place on her, or of her over the place—Hagler explores the idea of the prairie as a body:
Prairie is a strange body that puts on a performance of water. Perhaps grass moves like this because it haunts the ocean that covered the land millions of years ago, its roots proliferating from the water’s silt reminder. Perhaps the grass haunts water as people undoubtedly come to haunt their own pasts.
As Hagler shifts through metaphor like twists of a kaleidoscope, she weaves in not only references to Cather’s novels, but to the exploration of this land by conquistadors in search of gold as much as the westward-moving colonizers of the country’s fraught history. Even here, the story of the land is not just the story of the land, not just the story of fields of gold so much as what that gold represented over five-hundred years ago—a land that never made a promise to us, but that we expected things of and were disappointed when the land, not even aware of us enough to be apathetic, didn’t deliver.
When Hagler addresses Cather’s sentiments of her own hometown of Red Cloud, she by proxy reconsiders the conditions of her home in Nebraska, the home in which she lived with her mother and their family, the home to which she cannot return, the home she chose to leave, the home where she is no longer welcome. For Cather, “narration is not just a storytelling device but a way of staying in place where she no longer felt welcome to live as the person she grew up to be.” But this questioning of narrative and its function extends far beyond simply a haunting, a return, a way to revisit a place one no longer belongs, if they ever did to begin with. Throughout her essay, Hagler writes beautifully not only of the specific disconnect between what the parent expects and who the child is, but more generally questions, who are we in other people’s stories? How are our narratives shaped, received, carried across time and space, delivered to us through not only the world but through those who claim to, or should, love us? And what stories do we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives?
Questions beyond single, easy answers. And so, as wind turns first one direction, then another, stirring the tallgrass, Hagler loops, meanders, shifts, returns again and again without ever having fully left. Not conclusive nor resigned, but having traveled the distance, having done the work, having returned to the beginning, to the impasse, Hagler’s movement, her journey, is one toward quiet, rest, silence. The essay takes place, in an emotional sense, in the shared silence between narrator and family, in the oscillation “between the need to speak and someone else’s need for you to stay quiet.” But Hagler pushes beyond silence as a tool of oppression, into one that might be subverted, productive, transformative as much as language itself.
About the Reviewer
Michael Todd is a second-year MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Colorado State University. They teach composition and rhetoric, work as an editorial assistant for Colorado Review at the Center for Literary Publishing, and strive to provide community building and professional development opportunities through the Organization of Graduate Student Writers. Their recent words have appeared in Hippocampus and Foglifter Press’s anthology Home is Where You Queer Your Heart.