American Life in Poetry: Column 402

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Shadow play is among the few free entertainments left, and it must go on delighting children all around the globe. Derek N. Otsuji lives in Hawaii, and here’s his reminiscence.

Theater of Shadows

Nights we could not sleep—
       summer insects singing in dry heat,
              short-circuiting the nerves—

Grandma would light a lamp,
        at the center of our narrow room,
               whose clean conspiracy of light

whispered to the tall blank walls,
       illuminating them suddenly
              like the canvas of a dream.

Between the lamp and wall
       her arthritic wrists grew pliant
              as she molded and cast

improbable animal shapes moving
       on the wordless screen:
              A blackbird, like a mynah, not a crow.

A dark horse’s head that could but would not talk.
       An ashen rabbit (her elusive self)
           triggered in snow

that a quivering touch (like death’s)
       sent scampering into the wings
              of that little theater of shadows
    
that eased us into dreams.


We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Derek N. Otsuji. Reprinted from Descant, 2011, Vol. 50, by permission of Derek N. Otsuji and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2018 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.