Alex Howard – Couchsurfing at Nikolay’s

Couchsurfing at Nikolay’s
He met us at Kiev station,
its crematorium-like archways
filigreed with gold,
its Soviet escalators
lapping like tongues of steel.

We had walked past him, twice:
his calls drowned
under the brakes of trains
that screeched like the victims
in a Hammer Horror.

He led us through a park,
Chernobyl swings dangling like nooses,
and through a brutalist underpass
grey and dead as graphite.
Here I uzed to play viz mother,

he says, brow lumped like tyre tracks.
At his flat, he pours us vodka
turning on all three bars
of an electric heater,
that glow orange with the dust-

burnt fragrance of irregular use.
Six shots in and he’s nodding at landmarks
from his ninth-floor window,
eyes sparking like flint
under the city’s sulphurous glow.

All evening long
his war stories splintered and fell
like Panzer-struck birds.
The next morning, we slink out early
saying we have a flight to catch. Untrue.

At the underpass, I gaze back at his block:
a sheaf of starlings
twist like biblical locusts
against its sun-shocked brick.
They’re the only life I remember.


Alex is an author, poet and academic. His first book Library Cat has been translated into Korean, French and Italian and is an Elefanti Bestseller in Italy. In 2017, it won the People’s Book Prize.

Alex’s poetry has appeared in several journals, including Orbis, The London Magazine, Aesthetica and Gutter. It has been shortlisted for the Jane Martin Prize and earned winning entries in the Charles Causley International Poetry Prize, judged by Sir Andrew Motion, and the Red Cross Writing Prize.

Alex’s first academic book, Larkin’s Travelling Spirit, was published in January this year with Palgrave Macmillan. He is currently editor of the health & wellbeing theatre journal, DementiArts, as well as co-editor of the Philip Larkin Society’s journal, About Larkin.


Couchsurfing at Nikolay’s by Alex Howard received a special mention in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (January 2021) judged by Oz Hardwick.

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