A group of teenagers in an American town might not seem, at first glance, like an ideal subject for a chapbook-length narrative poem. Teen poetry gets a bad rap – surely a piece about teens will be every bit as prone to cliché and melodrama? Not necessarily so. Connor Charlton, author of Radio-Sun, finds some sublime poetry in the lives of these adolescents, and does so with a restraint and eye for detail that renders the subject matter fresh.
This novella of a poem features a fairly large cast of characters, and drifts between them as they go about their lives. We see them forge and abandon relationships, prepare for a school dance, rebel against set assignments, perform at talent shows… a range of ordinary and sometimes-familiar activities.
These quotidian things, however, are transformed into something quite beautiful by Charlton’s ability to pick out specific and resonant details which make even a bus journey a pleasure to read about. Whether it’s a “comet streak of white bird shit” on a window or the “sharp smashes of gas” let out by vehicle exhausts, fresh and precise details leap from almost every page.
Indeed, description is the strength of Radio-Sun. It reads like a mood piece, with an atmosphere so thick it’s almost tangible. Page by page small dramas emerge, develop, and die away, and as they do we’re drawn deeper and deeper into the lives of kids for whom these aren’t small or inconsequential happenings, but instead their entire world. It’s a world of treehouses, crushes, illicit drinks, fumbles in the backseats of cars, school dances, borrowed boats, difficult teachers, and even more difficult parents.
The mood of this book is so strong and so absorbing that when plot of a more theatrical nature rears its head later on it feels almost out of place, tacked on. Much of the book is dedicated to bringing us intimately into a set of lives which are intense but ordinary, sweetly realistic. To have Story (with a capital S) intrude on that is startling, and perhaps a little off-putting.
But then, aren’t events which intrude on people’s everyday lives always somewhat jarring?
It’s wise, in any event, to approach Radio-Sun without expectations. Think of it as a short film painted entirely in words. Moment after moment is deftly captured and arranged to evoke nostalgia, or a sense of loss, or a yearning, or a brief but sweet reminiscence of youth.