The oddly cadenced voice on the telephone declined to give me an address even though I had been invited to Virginia in order to catalog and appraise her literary archive. Instead she offered to pick me up the next day in the parking lot of a shopping center at Falls Church, then ankle deep in snow. I was warned not to be surprised by the fact that she would arrive in a camper, wearing a veil. Indeed she did turn up in a broad-brimmed straw hat, hung with layers of Irish-lace tablecloth dyed black, explaining that she didn’t want to be recognized as she knew herself to be under FBI surveillance. That was also the reason for withholding the street address. At the time, the idea seemed somewhat strange as the whole point of my presence was to be taken to the house. I could only assure her that she would have little trouble recognizing my black cowboy boots, London Bobby`s cape, and sweeping handlebar mustaches.

Sheri Martinelli was extraordinary and can be said to have had almost as much influence on Ezra Pound as he on her. She did, after all, inspire Cantos XC-XCV, which he wrote for and about her. In fact, he gave her typescript drafts of all five poems as well as writing her about a hundred and fifty letters. In those cantos she figures as Sibylla-Beatrice, Kuthera [Aphrodite], Kwanon, Ra-set, and Leucothea among other idealized female figures, and, of course, is closely associated with repeated references to Castalia, the spring of poetic inspiration at Delphi. Details of their actual relationship and day-to-day activities have been very little remarked, however, and Pound’s biographers have tended to dismiss her out of hand because of one silly prejudice or another. Recently Pound’s letters to her have been gathered together and they show just how important she was to him, especially from 1953 through 1955. Among her papers there were also two fragments from the original “Martinelli” Cantos which he had decided not to include in the publication of Section: Rock Drill (1955), as well as three other poems (two of them unpublished) which Pound had written either for her or at her behest. All three are interesting as lines or phrases from them found their way into the Cantos. “Prayer for a Dead Brother”, published posthumously in The Antigonish Review (1972), was meant to console her for Buddy’s (Walter Brennan’s) sudden death. The other two poems were instigated by her in a sympathetic effort to help out with Charlie [Bird] Parker’s rather disastrous finances shortly before he died.

Sheri Martinelli was an astonishing woman and attracted a great many actors, artists, musicians, and writers (not to mention academics) throughout her long career. Before meeting Pound in 1952 she was a well-known and much sought-after figure in Greenwich Village. She had been a model, mainly for Vogue, and had established an artist’s studio on Jones Street where one regularly met The Modern Jazz Quartet. In fact, Percy Heath, the base player, sat for one of her more accomplished paintings of that period, “Daw oo”, which Pound included in La Martinelli, (Milan, 1956) – a tiny volume of reproductions selected and introduced by himself without the artist’s authorization. Clarence Major, as well as Marlon Brando, and Leonard Bernstein, were admirers; Rod Steiger bought her paintings, as, later, did e.e. cummings (she called him, “Mr. Lowercase”) and Archibald MacLeish.

Glimpses of her startling impact and oddly ambiguous character can be seen in the many literary representations which have been published over the years. She is much present in The Dairies of Anaïs Nin, 1944 – 1947, playing the role of acolyte, while Nin confesses her pleasure in finding a younger version of herself. Both women performed in Maya Deren’s experimental film, Ritual in Transfigured Time (1945-1946), which, since 1986, has been available on video. Charles Duits (1925 – 1991), a French surrealist poet who danced attendance on Nin, wrote “La naissance de Sherry Martinelli”, a translation of which can be found in Gargoyle, 41 (1998), 52-53.

A few years before his death, Anatole Broyard began a memoir, and it opens with his initiation as a fledgling bohemian in Greenwich Village. He then set it aside in order to pursue other projects. The surviving text was edited by his widow and published in 1993 under the title, Kafka Was the Rage. The first half of it is a thinly-disguised account of a brief affair he claims to have had with La Martinelli shortly after the end of the Second European War. Whether or not Sheri Donati and Sheri Martinelli are identical is, of course, questionable, but they certainly are very similar. Whatever actually took place between the protagonists is long since beyond recovery, but the bemusing character in the memoir is immediately recognizable.

Another fictionalization of Sheri Martinelli, and one of much greater length, as well as complexity, lies at the very center of The Recognitions (1955) by William Gaddis. As in the case of Nin’s diary and Broyard’s memoir, the novel centers on the Village scene, but with a great deal more objectivity and an admirable gift for social satire. At the same time it strives to examine serious themes concerning existential reality and values. The effect that the fictional Esme has on various male characters is profound. She seems to represent the natural assurance of an elemental and enigmatic force in a world of anxious uncertainties, where the real and the fraudulent fight for recognition.

Even more interesting is H.D.’s incorporation of a very recognizable and historically accurate Sheri Martinelli in End to Torment (written in 1958, but not published until 1979). They had never met, but S.M. admired the older woman with characteristic extravagance, just as she had Anaïs Nin - and, of course, Ezra Pound. H.D. had seen her photograph in a 1957 article published in The Nation and heard a good deal about “Pound’s artist” both from the poet himself and Norman Holmes Pearson (Professor of Literature at Yale who also carried on a long correspondence with Martinelli). She had also managed to secure a copy of Pound’s La Martinelli (Milan 1956), and her identification with the younger woman obviously lay in their parallel relationships with Pound (whom H.D. then held to be an incarnation of the eternal Spirit Child, Eros). In her youth H.D. had been Pound’s Dryad, a woodland nymph, whereas Sheri Martinelli became Undine/Ondine, the water spirit or mermaid of his old age. Sailing for Europe, Ezra Pound abandoned H.D. in 1908 and Sheri Martinelli in 1958. Setting copy for H.D.’s diary underlines the perceived comparison by writing that she “seems myself then”, like “a reflection-in-a-mirror”, and “ghost-like” (39). She goes on, rather curiously, to mention a striking detail from one of Pearson’s letters: “[She] took a photograph herself (of herself), reflected in the mirror, in a ‘bikini’ (52). It would seem that that picture had been taken just after Martinelli had glimpsed a holiday snapshot sent to Pound by Eva Hesse.

Among the Martinelli papers there are cuttings from proof sheets of all the diary entries which refer to Miss Martinelli, La Martinelli, Martin, and the Martin. In the latter cases explicit associations are made with the messenger bird in Canto LXXVI (lines 233-235), Balzac’s Séraphita, and Sainte Thérèse Martin of Lisieux. In the published version ‘Undine’ has been substituted throughout, and even the title, La Martinelli, of the little book which reproduced some of her paintings, is suppressed in the notes. Once again Sheri Martinelli renames herself, reshaping her own image. Her association with mirrors, as attributed to Esme by Gaddis in The Recognitions, had already been established as had Pound’s references in Rock-Drill to Leucothea, who saves Ulysses from death by drowning, offering him her bikini rather than the canonical veil. Whether or not H.D. had read Gaddis’ novel is not known, but she certainly was familiar with the most recent volume of cantos and fully understood the significance of Sheri Martinelli in Pound’s life.

End to Torment goes on to quote Martinelli’s actual correspondence: “The male just can’t go around like that, ditching a spirit love.” In the same letter she had also written: “I took a vow [...] not to leave the Maestro until he was freed. A month before he was freed he made me break that vow” (57). After H.D.’s death in 1961 La Martinelli maintained that her spirit materialized in California and they were able to take long and fond leave of one another. Later, while dogs bayed inconsolably, Pound’s death was announced to her by a very sudden and violent windstorm that nearly blew her cabin off its cliff-top and into the Pacific Ocean.


Eva Hesse. Click to enlargeEva Hesse, Dalmatian Coast.
Click to enlarge