Sassetta has him feeling no pain, comfortable even,
Yet stiffly dignified at an odd angle like the statue
Of a fallen tyrant, beaten in proxy by his delirious subjects.
His halo falls with him yet retains its rectitude,
Remains a perfect corona for that saintly demeanour.
He knows his martyrdom’s assured, his place in heaven reserved.
But the devils are bending and leaping, as much taunters as torturers.
One pulls his cave-dark hair and raises a club to smash the heaven-bound brains
From the skull. Another, monkey-like, clubs the sacred legs beneath his cloak.
A third is poised with gigantic reddened jaws where his genitals should be,
About, it seems, to bite the saint in half. His back sprouts snakes and wings.
Behind them all, a serene landscape with squat, identical trees, is silent.
The devils’ claws grip the earth while the hermit hovers over it,
As if cut out of another painting. In life he’s already ascending.
I prefer their heat, their human dedication to the job in hand.
Stephen Devereux has published poetry, short stories, critical essays and travel writing in magazines in the UK and internationally. He was runner-up in the Elmet Foundation Ted Hughes Poetry Prize. His work appears on the Poetry Library archive, for which he has made recordings.