Jeff Alessandrelli’s debut book of poems, Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound, is an homage of sorts to Satie, the 19th- and 20th-century avant-garde composer. Throughout the collection, a portrait of Satie emerges ghostlike through bits of autobiography, both real and imagined. However, through the insistent refrain of “tells us nothing,” the reader is reminded of how little access or insight one can really be given into another life—how little understanding one can glean from facts and details, and even from the composer’s own writing. Even so, the fragments assembled portray Satie as an eccentric genius who was both admired and reviled during his lifetime.
It becomes clear early on that the speaker of the poems—likely the author himself—sees something of himself in the composer. In “A Game of Numbers,” Alessandrelli writes: “As we grow older our only investigation: / every year searching for a sleeker, more / impulsive version of ourselves.” And while we are told various facts about Satie, we are also reminded that they tell us nothing and that “his every thought was a locked glovebox.” The Satie that emerges is fleeting but made full by Alessandrelli’s imagination and his willingness to entangle his own sense of himself with his subject.
There’s an obsessive quality to the book, from its dedication to “the type of silence that you can’t get out of your head” to its focused subject/singular investigation and meticulous organization. Quotes from Satie bookend the collection—one appearing even before the title page, the other on the very last page, facing the back cover, almost as if endpapers—and floating unattributed quotes, presumably also from Satie, are interspersed throughout the book. Casually flipping through the pages, the reader will see a great variety of forms, from sheet music to prose blocks to numbered lists, and poems crossed out. Meanwhile, each of the twenty-seven poems within uses one of only six titles. The most distinctive of the six are the “Gnossiene[s],” which consist of the sheet music for Satie’s compositions of the same name but have Alessandrelli’s words, specifically written for these pieces of music, written in. For readers who are unfamiliar with how to read sheet music, Alessandrelli includes the poem sans music on the following pages. Like the “Gnoissiene[s],” the poems that share the title “A Game of Numbers” also have a distinct form—numbered lists—that sets them apart from the other poems in the collection.
The poems under the remaining four titles lack the formal qualities that connect the poems in the two aforementioned series; rather they seem to be drawn together thematically. For example, the “On Blast” poems appear to be written from the author’s perspective at the time of writing the pieces as he thought about and listened to Satie—perhaps the “on blast” referring here to speaker volume. The poems titled “The Veiled History of Erik Satie” are connected through their shared focus on Satie’s death and legacy—from what his friends discovered after entering his apartment for the first time after he died:
an inordinate amount of umbrellas,
many of them still encased in wrapping,
obviously never used,
and four pianos in varying states
of disrepair, two with their backs
up against one and other,
two more stacked upside down
on top of the other two.
Also, of course, a yellowed and trembling
packet of love letters,
to where he fits in today: “Nowadays known as ambient music, / Erik Satie invented furniture music.”
However, it’s a bit of a mistake to get too bogged down in thinking about what ties certain poems together when there is so much throughout the collection—wonderful imagery and phrases as well as playful repetitions and inversions—to delight in. Further, there’s no need for the reader to be a fan of Satie or even to have ever heard his music to enjoy these lyric pieces:
As a child I thought you could press a snowflake
into static pages of a book
the same way you could press a flower
and that snowflake would stay intact, indelible, true.
All morning long I’ve been listening to Erik Satie,
the Sarabandes, the Nocturnes.
They sound the way most people would rather be happy than honest.
They sound the way you can’t discover the lost treasure if the ship didn’t sink.
They sound the way a sad lonely man studies a stain
on the oppressively white rug he has recently purchased.
They sound the way life is only the illusion of growth,
death the illusion of decay. (“On Blast”)
Alessandrelli draws many parallels between Satie’s life and contemporary times. In “Simple Question,” after discussing Satie’s break-up with the only woman he was ever involved with, the poem continues:
Love is no more than “a sickness of nerves” he forever declared thereafter. And we are, all of us, smitten with the same slavers: sea, wind, the exquisite anglings of the mountains of stars above. Nothing, nothing, nothing and nothing.
Overall, Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound is a strong debut. A lot is packed into this slim volume of poems, but it doesn’t feel weighed down by its focused subject. It’s clear that a lot of research went into the book, but the poems sprawl, connect, and open up in ways that allow readers to enjoy them on their own. While the poems may be focused on Satie, they are ultimately ontological in nature—searching for answers and understanding but ultimately returning to that nothing, nothing, nothing and nothing.