Maids curtsied in starched peaked caps
so white they hurt your eyes
and you knew the war was coming
from nowhere, swift and bloody.
Was I a child checking in with my mother,
or a boy with a lover? Who knew?
It was early in summer and that lobby was vast.
Atriums like railway stations, honeycomb of corridors.
Iron bedsteads stacked upside down in linen closets.
The armies were massing on the Narva front.
A waiter hurried with a soft-boiled egg
in a delicate swan’s-neck cup.
Majordomos in stiff shiny pants with enormous cuffs
stood and watched fiercely, avid to find a flaw,
if only in the high clock whose minute hand
advanced in bursts—trance, rupture.
I joined hands with that timid stranger
and reminded myself, she’s powerless too.
The thought didn’t convince me.
The generals would use any weapon.
A valet passed wheeling a dolly
piled high with stained sheets.
From the grounds came the scent of lilac,
a faint hurdy gurdy, a blind voice singing,
it’s childhood, you don’t know yourself.
The radio said, the empire falls tonight.