Nancy Fitz-Hugh Meneely Honors Her Father's Sacrifice As A Doctor In WWII

Our featured poet for May writes of her father's suffering as a doctor in WWII's 10th Mountain Division

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. You can find other featured poets here.

—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

appeared, improbable.

We broke to encircle him,

soldiers exposed

at the side of the road,

hunkering, our faces buried

in his grimy scruff,

murmuring fragments

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.

Boots

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. You can find other featured poets here

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