Arts Pulse article
Poet Jamie Parsley’s vision of the 1957 Fargo tornado:
A preview and review


By Pamela Sund

One of the aims of poetry is to keep the human spirit alive and feeling empathy for fellow
travelers. Jamie Parsley’s poems do just that. In his forthcoming book, Fargo, 1957: An
Elegy, his sensitive approach to the narratives of individuals and a community in distress
evokes images, not only of immediate situations, but also of universal suffering and loss.
It is easy to “feel into” the lives of others as their stories unfold through Parsley’s poetic
works.

The personalization of the characters is enhanced by the accompanying photographs,
many previously unpublished. Parsley’s extensive research of his subject, the 1957 killer
tornado that ripped through Fargo, North Dakota, yielded photos that began to appear
from unexpected sources as though ordained to accompany the narratives. And to make
the personal even more so, Parsley’s mother lost a cousin and her husband to the disaster,
so the poet had firsthand experience of the stories before he began the project.

An entire book about one tragedy in one American city could easily remain too site and
event specific to engender proper sympathy if it arrived from the sensibility of a lesser
writer. With 12-gauge language suited to the subject of the tornado, alongside a flute-like
musicality that pays homage to the souls of the dead and to the spirits of those who
survived, Parsley elevates the problematic narrow subject to high accord. He uses
concrete imagery and alternates forceful and subtle rhythms and slant rhyme to
significant effect.

Here is a sampling of the aforementioned. From “Every day:” “It was here she lived
/ and it was here she lay that night / . . . in the wreckage and shattered glass / until
Thilford, her husband, / lifted the boards from her / revealing her shattered body.”
“Every
day” ends with speaking: “And now, alone, I face whatever that sky / will throw at me. /
Let those winds blow. / Let them rage. / What more could they take at this point?”

Shifting points of view abound, from that of the survivors, to the victims to the objective
narrator. Parsley put it this way: “You can make the dead speak in ways you can’t with
nonfiction.” This strategy adds to the heart-wrenching personalization present
throughout.

Layers of Fargo and family history are part of the story, as it moves from the past to the
present, in topography and genealogy. Children and grandchildren of the survivors and
the deceased also appear, and the paved over and reconstructed sites loom large in
Parsley’s descriptions. “There, where the telephone lines stood / and were knocked to the
ground, / a water tower balloons into the sky / . .. . And where the fence leaned to the
ground in the wind, / identical storage units / as uniform as the niches in a columbarium.”
From Parsley’s viewpoint, the tornado could sit or stand in for any tragic life event. “And
when I think to myself / of the sadness of this complete disappearance, / I am reminded
that this too awaits all of us . . .”

The very intensely felt poem “Betty” gets it all right: in attitude, rhythm, imagery and
feeling. “Don’t let me fall! / Let me not fall through the long night / as a stone falls to the
hard ground. / / . . . When the angry storm rises / and kicks up dirt from the earth, /
screaming at me in the long dusk / / don’t let me be like a fly / shivering and grasping at
the glass pane / as autumn dies.”

This creation of perceptive imagination and spirit is forthcoming in early December from
The North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies press.
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