Nancy Fitz-Hugh Meneely Honors Her Father’s Sacrifice As A Doctor In WWII
—Hartford Courant, May 29, 2016
This month’s featured poet, Nancy Fitz-Hugh Meneely, is the author of “Letter from Italy: 1944,” which is the source of an oratorio by the same title with music by Sarah Meneely-Kyder, itself the subject of a PBS Emmy-nominated documentary narrated by Meryl Streep. The oratorio will be performed by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in 2017. The poems in Meneely’s book tell the harrowing story of Dr. John Meneely, the author’s father, whose involvement in World War II as a doctor in the 10th Mountain Division continued into his personal war against what we now know as post traumatic stress disorder. What follows is a selection from the book: two poems and an entry from John Meneely’s Italian diary. After many years with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Meneely now devotes her time to writing and social service projects such as A Better Chance. She lives in Essex.
—Rennie McQuilkin, CT Poet Laureate
Letter from Italy, 1945
Tonight beneath the slide
of moonlight on the mountain’s
eastern flank, the snow
is veined with trails of those
I’ve pulled to camp. The cold
is fastened around my thighs,
the whole of winter’s weight
suspended from it as I try
to get the last one home.
He took a round below the ribs,
a belly wound I cannot staunch.
Slowly he leaves his life behind us
beading in the frozen air,
a story tailing off, the storyteller
gone to sleep.
Last week we passed Cecina,
ruined in the war. From back
behind a house returned to earth
and stone, a sudden cheerful dog
We broke to encircle him,
at the side of the road,
hunkering, our faces buried
in his grimy scruff,
of letters home, wanting
to weep at the warmth.
My Lieutenant, Bill, said:
“Most of us hate the snow
and all of us hate the sound
of shells, the godawful softness
of flesh, the things we’ve forgotten
about ourselves, the enemy.
Look at us, John, sucking
at hatred for strength
and dying for something to love.”
He smiled at me,
the gift he always gave.
When I lean over my soldier
to dress his wound,
he is aware of everything,
the pump and heat of his blood,
the length of himself on the snow,
how small I am between him
and the brilliant Alpine sky.
I would like to ride the fall
of light into rooms
in the village below,
to sleep as the villagers sleep,
glossy with moonlight, not sick
with the feel of its thin
indifference in me.
A man is wracked with weeping somewhere near,
keening from behind a closet door,
and John’s the only man who’s living here.
He fights the clutch of memory and fear,
my husband, wins his own twice-daily war.
But now I find him weeping somewhere near
though he has never cried where I could hear.
He’s holding boots I haven’t seen before
on him, the only man who’s living here.
He tells the story, strangled by thick tears:
he bushwhacks hard along the island shore
to sweep for men in wreckage somewhere near.
In brush beside the shingle, boots appear,
inside them someone’s ankles, nothing more.
My John’s the only man who’s living here.
He finds the severed body, lifts it clear
of wet black tangle on the ocean floor.
A man is wracked with weeping somewhere near
and he’s the only man who’s living, here.
I was sitting upstairs in my room when we began to hear a machine gun up the valley fire. At first we thought it was a counterattack. Then whistles began to blow, and suddenly my sergeant came screaming up the stairs and began to hug me and howl that all hostilities had ceased in all of Italy. The town was wild by that time. But even in the confusion, I noticed with wonder that not a soldier was participating. Both my sergeants were looking out over the water and saying nothing. I think it was the gravest moment in any of our lives. I went up to my room. It was a dazed, confused feeling. The main thing that kept clawing at me was that we were safe and that in the last week people like Bill Floyd had been killed. I stood there for a long time before I realized that my face and shirtfront were soaked and that I was shaking with tears; for the first time in many years, I was crying, hard, like a damned baby I thought. I looked out the window and thought, Bill, Bill, why aren’t you here to see this day? I looked down and my sergeant was sitting on the steps with his head in his hands, crying, too. I went to bed and fell into a dead sleep.
Copyright © 2013 by Nancy Fitz-Hugh Meneely
CT Poet Laureate Rennie McQuilkin selects work for CT Poet’s Corner by invitation.
Copyright © 2016, Hartford Courant