Debbie Nadolney is someone most art lovers (or music lovers, or convergence lovers) in Provincetown know. She arrived on the local gallery scene in 2012 when she opened AMP — Art Market Provincetown — and expanded what a gallery might do and be in the 21st century.
From visual art to quiet literary events to the annual “Tough Girls and Lucid Dreamers” show — which offered a smorgasbord of queer takes on music, poems, and other creative engagements — Debbie’s AMP celebrated it all with curiosity, openness, and verve. Last month marked her “closing opening,” and AMP will be missed.
Given her ability to bring together surprising connections, her love of making and singing, her deft wordplay, and her keen creative mind, how could I not ask Debbie to “Mad Libs” a poem?
Debbie wrote “Lightning Years” with Rita Dove’s “Evening Primrose” as a foundational structure and inspiration. (Look for the original on the Poetry Foundation’s website.) Taking what Dove made, Debbie rewrote the poem in her own image, line by line, verb by verb.
Dove’s poem opens with “Neither rosy nor prim” and goes on to explore the beauty of an amazing but unprepossessing flower that opens not with the dawn but at dusk.
Like Dove’s, Debbie’s poem is a corrective. She invokes Elie Wiesel in her opening epigraph, while Dove opens with a quotation from composer Ned Rorem. With these framing quotations, each poet asks us to connect her poem to wider conversations about meaning. Debbie then begins “Whether swiftly or slow” and goes on to engage how deep, fossiliferous time can be viewed to help us understand our current, fleeting political moment.
I called Debbie after she emailed me the poem, then read aloud to her what she’d written and asked her how it felt to hear it. “It felt really good, actually!” she said. “I really like the second and third stanzas.” What a delightful response! She should feel good about what she made. Then we talked about metaphor, meaning, and how challenging it can be to get them to align. But Debbie knew what she was doing. “I feel what I was trying to say was that, while others march along rocks, we’re not thinking about what’s under our feet,” she said.
When I asked her why she chose this poem out of all the possible examples I’d sent, Debbie said she loved how Dove’s poem addressed how this amazing thing — the opening of a flower in the night — happened during the quiet time when nobody actually noticed it. This flipped the idea of beauty for her and asked her to consider what else we don’t notice — and what else we forget.
It also made her think about what else we don’t see and how the unbeautiful repeats, too, albeit in insidious ways. For Debbie, the essential question of the poem is a reckoning with the past of how we repeat (or, more hopefully, avoid repeating) the horrors of earlier ages.
Working on this “makes me want to write a lot more poetry,” Debbie said. “I loved the process. It’s a way to focus your brain, especially when everything is so chaotic. It’s such a centering thing — and it’s such a wonderful boxing match. Yesterday I had to get my car inspected, which took a million hours, but sitting in the space, considering this poem, stretching my brain, was so wonderful.” Working on the poem was a way for Debbie to honor what she thinks of daily but rarely gets a chance to synthesize. It was an opportunity to differently engage with the things that matter to her — and a chance to ask herself why.
By Debbie Nadolney
Whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness.
Whether swiftly or slow,
no trifling season to endure
other’s experienced memory—
I wonder at the fossil’s dissent,
snug under the weight of strata,
occasionally loosed and telling
Age-old schist prefigures a blackened
manuscript, while people march
along rocks. Years bring
generations of newcomers
yet, when the red flags fly,
they scramble, excitedly deaf
to the mistakes of the past.
They’ll wade through the muck
hardening new revelations—
one ceaseless trample—then
through faint echoes of forgotten
tears, sing “hey, hey
what do you know?”
to a shadow.
Based on a poem by Rita Dove