Arts and Entertainment

Theater of Shadows | Poem by Derek N. Otsuji

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.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, 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 fromDescant, 2011, Vol. 50, by permission of Derek N. Otsuji and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 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. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.
We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.

Read the Oct 26
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates