Orange and black cover with pattern of orange and yellow trianglesephebos, Kostya Tsolakis

Ignition Press, 2020       £5.00

Striving to be heard

In this pamphlet Kostya Tsolakis explores painful experiences of the troubled coming of age centred on emergent sexuality. It’s a highly charged and personal account written from the first-person perspective. His conventional Greek community denies the narrator his gay identity; the poems reflect the resulting deep hurt and suffering in their savage and unrestrained language.

The poem ‘Antlers’ contemplates the macho behaviour of the narrator’s classmates, ‘true bone rising from stiff-gelled heads’. His own father admires ‘the boys who live on our block’ who ‘bellow’ while the son knows ‘my neck could not stand the weight’. It’s a powerful evocation of isolation and loneliness.

The theme of loneliness appears again in the poem ‘Hounds’, when the poet turns to the ‘mute companionship’ of pet dogs, commonly known as man’s best friend. But the poem is peppered with negative language such as ‘sparkless’, ‘terrified’, ‘grate’. It feels as though even their love is denied him:

Whatever the cause — without
a sound you tore me up like dough.
Didn’t stop until all that was left
was bone.

‘Naming It’ lays bare the stigma, myth and hysteria which surrounded the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s. The lines form a litany of visceral despair, an angry declamation of injustice levied on the gay community living on the edge of society. ‘Our cries cut deeply / into the skin of hearing.’

Reading ephebos, I came away moved by this young man’s lonely quest for approval, for unconditional love. It’s an unforgettable set of poems which will stay with me for a long time.

Maggie Mackay