Featured Poem

A Diorama
by Alfian Sa’at


Here we have assembled at the table:
Raffles, Farquhar, the Temenggong,
And Tengku Long, who will soon be known
As Sultan Hussein, ruler of Johor.

Who else? An Orang Laut.
Where shall we place him? In between,
But not in the foreground, considering
He is not one of our main protagonists.

How about an entourage for the royals?
Yes, holding umbrellas of yellow silk,
With tassels combed for the occasion.

What about the other side?
Why, of course, decked in uniform,
With muskets cocked for the occasion.

See, from the edge of that satchel,
That which you thought was a tongue?
It’s the Union Jack. And see, that smudge
On the parchment? It’s a drop of sweat,

The Tengku is sweating, and only part of it
Is caused by the heat. Or perhaps
It’s not sweat at all, but rain, the sky
Has darkened, the umbrellas are useless,
Being as they are ceremonial regalia.

Look again: the figures are no larger
Than the palm of your hand. The lighting
Has been turned to an exact brightness.
No ominous weather, no tremor of doubt
In the hand the quill the coconut fronds.

All is still. If somebody smiles, it is
A trick of the light, if a moustache quivers
It is an illusion through glass.
Nothing moves except scintillas of dust
Caught in the beams of halogen suns.

The ink has dried. The manuscript is dry.
Look: their shadows leaning on a painted sky.


Reprinted with the author’s permission, “A Diorama” appeared in Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore (Autumn Hill Books, 2009), edited by Alvin Pang, and funded by Singapore’s National Arts Council.


Alfian Sa'at

Alfian Sa’at is currently a Resident Playwright with W!LD RICE. His plays with the company include Homesick, Happy Endings: Asian Boys Vol. 3 and Cooling-Off Day. His published works include poetry: One Fierce Hour, A History of Amnesia and The Invisible Manuscript, short stories: Corridor and Malay Sketches, and plays: Collected Plays 1 & 2.

Alfian has been nominated eight times for Best Script at the Life! Theatre Awards, eventually winning for ‘Landmarks’, ‘Nadirah’ and ‘Your Sister’s Husband’. He has also won the Boh Cameronian for Best Original Script for ‘Parah’ and Best Original Book or Lyrics for ‘The Secret Life of Nora’. He has also been nominated for the Kirayama Asia-Pacific Book Prize and the Singapore Literature Prize for A History of Amnesia.

In 2001, Alfian won the Golden Point Award for Poetry as well as the National Arts Council Young Artist Award for Literature. His plays have been translated into German, Swedish and Danish and have been read and performed in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, London, Zürich, Hamburg, Munich, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.


  1. Very nice piece of work. Slow, measured and controlled. Well done.


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