… 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.
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.
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).
Below are two pictures from my writing space.