State Amphibian

Katy E. Ellis

… the state Senate majority leader says making the Bible Tennessee’s state book would diminish its religious importance, dragging it down to the level of the Tennessee cave salamander.
from Critics Oppose Making Holy Bible Tennessee’s Official Book, NPR, April 16, 2015

Nothing changed when you were named the State Amphibian.
You remained neotenic—neither diminishing nor becoming—

a larval being of heartbeat, stoneflies, lidless eyes.

Now a state of people consider dragging the Bible down
into your dark sinkhole somewhere in the wormed waterways

of those Tennessee limestone cave systems.

Your three red feathery gills flitter with each humid breath—
body moist glint off our halogen beams—we see you so rarely.

splendor-skink-skink-riopa-fernandi-reptile-60556.jpeg

In fact, you are a considered a species endangered.

Never would we find you in a hotel room drawer, never
in a missionary’s backpack next to clean or dirty underwear,

never do you slide from our lips in rote recitation.

The Bible says on the Sixth Day God created you—creeping thing
all slime and slip and un-evolved—same day He created us.

Neither diminishing nor becoming, we never get past the pages

you slither up against in that darkness, where God’s weighty words
press your sacred existence between Old and New Testament

like dried wildflowers and memory of picking them by the fistful.

Katy E. Ellis grew up in under fir trees and high-voltage power lines Renton, Washington and is the author of three chapbooks: Night Watch—winner of the 2017 Floating Bridge Press chapbook competition—Urban Animal Expeditions and “Gravity” (a single poem), which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poetry appears in a number of literary journals including MAYDAY Magazine, Calyx, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and the Canadian journals PRISM InternationalGrain, and Fiddlehead.  Her fiction has appeared in Burnside Review and won Third Place in the Glimmer Train super-short fiction contest. She has been awarded grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation, Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture and Artist Trust/Centrum. Katy co-curates WordsWest Literary series, a monthly literary event in West Seattle, where she lives in with her husband and daughter.

Before the Razor
A look inside the creative process of “State Amphibian”

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One of my writing talismans (a rabbit in a larval stage?) which my daughter made for me out of an old sock posed with the poem State Amphibian written on my trusty writing instrument (my laptop)

The poem State Amphibian came about after I woke one spring morning to the radio story about a controversial bill in process in Tennessee that would officially make the Bible Tennessee’s state book. The phrase “dragging it [the Bible] down to the level of the Tennessee Cave Salamander” stuck with me and made me defensive on behalf of the slithery salamander,  a rare and endangered creature living a mysterious, mostly unseen existence just as holy to me as the old ubiquitous King James Bible adventures and destructions I’d known all my life. I knew right then I wanted to write a poem about this news story. I began researching (on the internets) and found some lovely images and language associated with Tennessee Cave Salamander. I especially liked the term “neotenic”—the strange larval stage out of which this salamander never evolves. It’s a condition I fear us humans are stuck in with our veneration of the Bible or other written texts as set fixtures of faith. I’m not a prolific writer. My interpretations and re-interpretations of my own work don’t evolve very quickly. This poem took me about a year to write (on and off in secretions).

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I myself often feel very larval.

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Below are two pictures from my writing space.

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I sometimes must resort to smoking the fake cigarette my friend Laura Thorne made for me when we used to pretend smoke together in our conjoined county government cubicle. I also drink a lot of tea (or coffee) when I write. Two habits I refuse to give up!

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A group of other writing talismans that have come to me over the years and hang out on my desk emanating good vibes.