High Plains Reader article
Jamie Parsley's Fargo, 1957: An Elegy
By Dan Nygard
“I’m trying to capture the voices of people who can’t speak for themselves anymore.
Poetry can do that.”—Jamie Parsley
While discussing his tenth book, Fargo, 1957: An Elegy, Fargo poet Jamie Parsley gave
a statement I keep finding myself returning to: “I don’t think it’s really been explored so
much, how important obsessions are to writers. You can use them creatively and
positively.” Though a small part of a much-larger conversation, which ran the gamut
from East Coast poets to the poetry of the Far East, this statement gives tremendous
insight into the creation of Mr. Parsley’s latest collection, and to the way poetry can
create meaning out of mystery.
When the tornado hit Fargo in 1957, Mr. Parsley was not yet born; however, the event
would reverberate throughout his life, as his mother’s cousin, Betty Lou Titgen, and her
husband, Don, were caught directly in the storm. Don was killed almost immediately;
Betty’s injuries put her into a coma, and she died in January of 1960. “And this was one
of those obsessions I grew up with,” Parsley explained. “The real key was how secretive
it was. It was an open secret—we know they died—but nobody ever wanted to talk about
it. So the more of a secret it was, the more I wanted to open it up and see.”
In Parsley’s case, obsession revolved around finding answers to the questions behind
what had happened that day, not only to his family members, but to the entire
community of Fargo. “This was a defining moment in our history,” Parsley said.
“Almost everybody was affected in some way.”
The few stories he heard stayed with him. “I tried writing about it over the years,”
Parsley said. “I wrote a play at one point, I wrote some fiction. Nothing really came of
it. So I decided I would fully research it, just get it out of my system if nothing else.”
This research, a two-year process, involved trips to NDSU’s Institute for Regional
Studies, The Red River Valley Genealogical Society, The Fargo Forum, and local
libraries. In addition, Parsley conducted interviews with anyone who could tell his or
her story. “It was amazing,” Parsley recalled. “Here in Fargo, you try one thing, and it
opens up a whole other area.” However, the process was not easy because for many
people the topic can be difficult to talk about, and very little physical evidence remains,
a fact which is highlighted in a line from “Relics,” the last poem in the book: “Whatever
they had was blown away or destroyed.” But what Parsley found proved incredibly
For example, during a visit to Betty and Don’s daughter, Lynn Brown, who was two
years old when the tornado took the lives of her parents, he was shown a shoebox
containing a 50’s style wallet, which Don carried the day of the tornado, with his driver’
s license, a signed work card with the date 6-19-57, and a fishing license. “And all of a
sudden, it was real,” Parsley said. “This wallet was on him when it happened.”
In addition, Parsley learned that there were two different stories about where Betty and
Don were when the storm began. “The story she had been told was that they were at the
movies. Later I hear that there is a story that they were at the bar—the Brass Rail. She
had heard ‘at the movies,’ someone else had heard ‘at the bar.’” In this situation, with
two conflicting stories, what became important wasn’t whether either story is ‘true’. In a
poetic sense, both stories create a picture of life as it happened on that day. In this
opening section of “O Salutaris,” written in the voice of Don, Parsley uses both stories
to create a sense of two people whose lives were lost that day:
What did we ask for in our lives?
After weeks of work and toil and loss
all we needed was a break.
So what if we were at the Brass Rail
on Front Street?
Does anyone care?
And does it matter?
Or what if we were
at the movies with another couple?
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
had just opened that day
and promised us a glimpse of a glory
we rarely saw
as it rose before us on the screen
in all its VistaVision splendor
at the Fargo Theatre.
Here, the details of a day spent downtown are all ‘true,’ as a young married couple
emerges, weary from “work and toil and loss,” searching for something to do on a rare
afternoon out, unaware as everyone else in Fargo that the storm is on its way. Living in
Fargo, even fifty-some years after the fact, one knows these people. This sense of
character exists throughout Parsley’s poems. “I try to do each person homage,” Parsley
explained. “These people woke up that morning, and nobody would have guessed that
something like this would happen. Who would?”
There is an emotional honesty apparent in each voice, a sense that the poet is letting
these characters speak for themselves. “They came alive on their own,” Parsley said,
“But I just had to give them enough room to do that.” And part of what makes Fargo,
1957: An Elegy so, well, elegiac, is Parsley’s willingness to present himself and his own
obsession honestly—the process of discovering these people and what they have left
behind is a story in itself. This appears most poignantly in “Ghostly,” which concludes
with this acknowledgement of the beauty behind the questions that are still unanswered:
“And, like ghosts, we grasp at each other/ across the abyss,/ our voices sounding to the
other/ like the first rumble of approaching thunder.”
A Reading/Publication Party to celebrate Fargo, 1957: An Elegy will be held at 4:00 p.
m. on December 18th at the Spirit Room, 111 Broadway.