Invoking the Salamander

    So we will walk on the ruins of a vast sky,
    The far-off landscape will bloom
    Like a destiny in the vivid light.

    The long-sought most beautiful country
    Will lie before us land of salamanders.

    — Yves Bonnefoy

I. Visitation

Indian summer, season of dust.
I vacuum blinds and behind
louvered doors, where I find
the salamander—tiny, lean,
built like a racecar, almost
blending into the carpet.
I take a napkin from the table,
scoop up the interloper,
shake him out the front door.
He stands on the concrete,
looking straight at me,
wide-mouthed and wide-eyed,
defiant as a boxer. I go back
inside, turn my thoughts
to the next room.

II. Dream

There’s a keepsake box
I’ve had since childhood
but never look into.
The lid lifts. A giant
white salamander slips out,
quickly hiding where
he can’t be found.
Of this earth, yet not
of this earth—a hidden
life, untended, survives
on air, and finally stirs.

Someone holds a gun
to my head. I am strangely
calm despite the threat,
the cold kiss of the barrel,
the menacing strangers
in an unknown room, doing
what they think they must—
what I think they must—
since this is my dream.

Or is it?

I feel something
dreaming outside me,
an ether of swirls and eddies,
a rushing stream of intent.

Somewhere the salamander
waits, careful teacher,
patient survivor—
pale as the ash of a pyre,
fearsome arbiter of fate.

III. Origins

When Earth’s magic was
younger, people trembled
before the salamander:

Eater of fire.
Birther of gods.
Bestower of visions.
Smiter of ignorance.

Master of transformation,
bridging earth and water.
Master of disguise,
portal to soul memories.

The salamander speaks
in the hiss of a match,
the crackling blaze,
the spent coals. Those
who follow the changeling
across the threshold
remember each incarnation,
the alchemists’ gold.

IV. Invitation

The dark-haired, dark-skinned woman
bows her head. She does not look
this way. The day’s work waits
to be done. She walks steadily
over the ridge and down the arroyo.

I have tried to see more, but it feels
made up, a reflection not of her,
but of me. She looks back, laughs,
teases, leading me somewhere
I’m not sure I want to be led.

Her arm moves in a circle,
slow and deliberate, a ritual.
There is a trail. Others to go with.
Food is prepared by women
silent as stones, smiling
like pebbles in water.

Time passes and we return,
she and I, to the place where she
walks away and I do not follow.
Yet each time I go a step farther.

V. Journey

The tiny salamander reappears,
runs circles around the foyer.
How he gets in is a mystery.
Released to the backyard,
he vanishes into nature.

The great white remains at large.
But in my poems, sheet after sheet,
ceremony stones fall into place,
feet blaze the path ahead,
lungs expand into deathless space,
each word an open mouth
that demands: Burn. Defy.
Rise. Leap.

Salamander appeared to me in both physical reality and dream around 2006, several years after I was diagnosed and treated for cancer. Initially, I was startled and baffled by these visitations. I knew nothing about salamanders and had no idea of their history as potent symbols of transformation. Yet at the time, my entire life was about transformation. I was engaged in the long process of recovering my health, which included a lifestyle centered on quiet, yoga, and meditation—along with a return to writing poetry. I also visited Little Petroglyph Canyon in the Coso Range of the Mojave Desert, which brought forth memories of a past life among native people thousands of years ago. These elements are intertwined in the poem, as they continue to be in my life.

The epigraph by Yves Bonnefoy is from On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, a book-length poem whose central figure is a woman who dies and then rises—or simultaneously, does not rise—from the dead. “Each instant I see you being born, Douve, each instant dying.” This female figure is highly symbolic; in French, her name means “moat.” For me, she is an archetype synonymous with the Divine Feminine—“I will name wilderness the castle which you were…”—a wilderness that is lost and found and lost again, though we continually seek connection.

The tiny salamander in my house brought the wilderness to me. I have no way of knowing whether it was male or female, though my intuition says male. The great white salamander of my dream felt androgynous. A telling aspect of salamanders is that some have the ability to change their sex. They unite both aspects of creation, challenging us to be reborn in the fires of body and spirit.

About the Author

Cynthia Anderson – Since moving to the Mojave Desert in 2008, Cynthia has embraced writing about her new home. Her books include Mythic Rockscapes, Desert Dweller, Shared Visions I and II, and In the Mojave. She frequently collaborates with her husband, photographer Bill Dahl. Cynthia is co-editor of the anthology A Bird Black as the Sun: California Poets on Crows & Ravens, which features over 80 leading poets and is described by the Los Angeles Review as “a riveting collection.”

Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Askew, Mojave River Review, Inlandia: A Literary Journey, The Sun Runner Magazine, Phantom Seed, Dark Matter, and Whale Road. This year she has received poetry awards from the Palm Springs Writers Guild and the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland.

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