Sheri Martinelli was, in fact, born Shirley Burns Brennan - not O’Brennan as she sometimes signed herself in the 1950s on 17 January 1918 in Philadelphia and grew up in Atlantic City. Returning to the place of her birth in the late 1930s, she studied ceramics under John Butler at the Philadelphia School of Industrial Arts and met Ezio Martinelli, a painter and sculptor, who was then a student at the Barnes Foundation. They married and moved to New York where she studied engraving with Stanley William Hayter at the Atelier de Sept. In 1943, a daughter, Shelley (named for Percy Bysshe S.), was born. Ezio Martinelli’s career included exhibiting paintings regularly at the Willard Gallery to reasonably respectful reviews and teaching at Sarah Lawrence for nearly thirty years. Some of his sculptures are still to be seen at United Nations headquarters. The marriage, however, foundered before the end of the war; Sheri left the child in his care, but retained the surname in case her daughter might wish to seek her out later. Over the years, on the other hand, her given name underwent a series of changes. By early adolescence Shirley had renamed herself, Sherry (Sherrie). During the Greenwich Village phase of her life, however, and thanks to her study of numerology, she discovered that her name was not altogether auspicious and so restyled herself, Sheri. It is simply not true that people at various times misspelled her name, but rather that the spelling of her name was as protean as her very self.    

Of the fictionalizers and memoir-writers Gaddis is perhaps the most reliable, with Broyard close behind. Esme (E-SM-E), as Gaddis portraits her, is nothing if not altogether fey - disorienting, clairvoyant, other worldly, elfin, and whimsical. Much is made of mirrors, for example, as sources of deception and truth, of perception and objectivity. Wyatt, the central figure in the story who forges Old Masters and agonizes over existential responsibility, paints Esme as the Virgin Mary, over and over again, always including disguised self-portraits done with mirrors. When visiting her apartment, Otto, the author’s alter ego, asks Esme:

            – Don’t you have a mirror?

            – Don’t you see? There aren’t any, she said.

            – But why not ?

            – Mirrors dominate people. They tell your face how to grow.

            – Now Esme, really. Mirrors are made to look in.

– Made to look in? she said. – They are evil, she said, thinking of her own dream now. – To be trapped in one, and they are evil. If you knew what they know. There are evil mirrors where [Wyatt] works, and they work with him, because they are mirrors with terrible memories, and they know, they know, and they tell him these terrible things and then they trap him . . . She was speaking with hysteric speed. (221)

Later Otto tells Esme that he loves her.

              No you don’t, Otto. You don’t even know who I am. [...] You had me filled in before you met me, Otto. There was no room for me at all.

He then asks her if she has been faithful to him:

            You can only be faithful to people one at a time.    (449)

To Wyatt, her emotional lode-stone, she says:

            The love I have of others is not love of me, but where they try to find themselves, loving me. I dream and I wake up, and then at that moment you are somewhere being real to other people; and they are a part of your reality; and I am not.    (469)

Gaddis not only reproduces the oracular and bewildering nature of Sheri Martinelli’s conversation, but also records verbatim an actual letter to him, concerning the exercising demands of art on a practicing artist (471-473). (See Steven Moore, “Sheri Martinelli,” Gargoyle, 41 (1998), 35). The leaping, darting sequence of ideas (not to mention their ambiguity) and the language in which they are presented exactly mirror her mind.

Broyard, however, was singularly adept at recapturing the eccentric intonation of the real Martinelli’s speech. Her voice was high pitched, soft and thin, rather childlike, and her words flowed evenly, almost endlessly, and without pause or juncture. She often ignored differentiation of pitch and tended to mark stress by sounding syllables separately. The effect was extraordinary; altogether unforgettable. Rather than incantatory, her piping speech was mesmerizing. One was carried along by the cascade of sound as well as the infinite possibility of what it might all mean. William McNaughton, whom Pound had at one point detailed to look after La Martinelli, has quoted the poet’s remark to his wife: “Elle lui fera voir des pays”. Gilbert Lee recalls one of his later and more formal pronouncements: “Never was cut glass or crystal as clear as your mind”. It is also difficult to imagine precisely what he really meant by either of those statements. There is yet another pronouncement in an unpublished letter of that period written to a third party in which he announces good-humoredly that one of the less frequent visitors at St. Elizabeths had decided to take Sheri Martinelli in hand and straighten out her altogether chaotic life. Pound quipped that such an effort would be like corralling a bolt of lightning in a heavy mist.

There certainly was a kind of perceptive innocence, an almost childlike relish of alternative reality, about La Martinelli, and she was not altogether unaware of it. Interestingly enough she was sufficiently sensitive to pick up similar qualities in others - especially children. For example, she reported a question posed one Spring by little Gary Lee, her future husband’s nephew: “Are they the same leaves as last year”, and a version of this appears in Canto XCIV (36-7). Pound comments that he found that to be a very intelligent question. Martinelli also recounted what her own young nephew, Joey Buonaiuto, said on seeing the primitives at the National Gallery: “Are they for real?” That too entered The Cantos (CI: 91-2), but in this case there is unpublished evidence as to just how Pound misconstrued that particular piece of then-current slang. “When your charrming small nevvy said ‘Are they for real?’ he meant were they painted from something, people or places that wd hv. been like that in a foto. [Adriano] Ungaro had more mature mind saying: ‘Just as hard as THAT’! That was a steel cube & he was talking about states of mind.” (13 June 1954)

Broyard, on the other hand, is the only writer who shows that there was another side to Sheri Martinelli’s character. She could also be vindictive and destructive. His memoir ends in disillusionment as Sheri Donati has him picked up by the police for stealing one of her paintings, the same one she had freely given him earlier. Whether or not this actually happened is irrelevant; the incident might well be nothing more than a plot device. Nevertheless, she actually did turn her future husband in to the Federal Narcotics Bureau on a drugs-trafficking charge, and he was sentenced to six months in prison. At that time Gilbert Lee was organizing jazz concerts and importing New York musicians. Of course, he had to supply them, and Sheri was piqued because he wouldn’t give her any. In her Greenwich Village days she had been a heavy user, and Gaddis confirms the fact in a comment on the track marks along the arm of Wyatt’s model for the Virgin Mary (Esme). When Gilbert Lee got out of jail, they recommenced their lives together, and he remembers Pound saying: “The way Sheri and Gib forgive one another their various atrocities, I will never forget in a long and varied lifetime.”

In a similar way, Sheri’s name appears as author of “The Parable of Crow and Mockingbird” as published in the Winter issue of Shenandoah (1958). In front of her name ‘I Po Li’ was printed, which must have mystified readers as Po Li was Sheri’s nickname for Gilbert Lee, whose surname had been Americanized from the more usual Romanization, Li.. The point was that Po Li (Western style with surname last) and Li Po (701-762) were kin. Placing ‘I’ before the name implies  I[,] Po Li[, am] Sheri Martinelli.  She undoubtedly had a genius for self-promotion, but it was Gilbert Lee who wrote the little fable, and at Pound’s prompting.  On 15 March had written to his daughter, “Po Li is NOT Sheri. She only sent em the ms. Shenendoah specializes in wrong attributions.  Attributed Rex’ Epitaph to Mullins. | 1 |

1 | Pound Archive, Beinecke Library, Yale University.


At times La Martinelli’s playfulness could perhaps go just a little bit too far. In her long letter to the Editor of The Light Year, Miles Payne, which was published in the second (and last) issue (1958-1959), she wrote: “I’d like to record this fact ... that Ezra Pound .. agish 69 to 72 ish .. could fuck better than any man & that includes men of many colors [...] he balls like a fierce wild eagle.” She may have conceived the letter as a hilarious Beatnik joke, or simply as self-promotion. Literary gossip will exercise itself over that titbit for a long time to come. The incident is referred to in John Theobald’s Foreword to the Pound/Theobald Letters (1984, 4). (Cp. the quotation from her letter to Archibald MacLeish in E. Fuller Torry, The Roots of Treason, (1984), 241.)

The turning point in her life came when Joe Castaldo, a student at Julliard and jazz saxophonist with whom she was living at the time,  suggested that she visit Pound at St. Elizabeths. That meeting was also a turning point for the poet. Their relationship burgeoned,  and she moved to Washington to be near him, equally excited by his mind and persona as he by hers. In 1954 he was paying her rent ($35.00 a month) and offered her a dollar a day to supervise him officially on the lawns of the asylum. She was to provide afternoon tea and thus stand in for his wife who was then exhausted and unwell. There was even talk of legal adoption in order to facilitate the arrangement, but since the hospital administration was willing to overlook the fact that Martinelli was not exactly ‘family’, the idea was dropped. It was at this time that Pound commissioned her to paint, but always in the manner of Byzantine and Quattrocento masters rather than in the contemporary style(s) of her Greenwich Village peers. The relationship between patron and artist was unusual in that this patron dictated both subject matter and treatment rather arbitrarily. The 'artist' acquiesced, and always maintained that it was Pound who encouraged her to illuminate his work (in the sense of medieval manuscript illuminations). She designed on almost anything of Pound’s that came into her hands: books, letters, envelopes, etc.. The real object, however, might well have been merely to confirm ownership.

Both the existence and nature of the typescript drafts for Cantos XC-XCV, not to mention autograph letters referring to their relationship which survive among her papers, attest to her profound effect on the development of Section: Rock-Drill. Cantos LXXXV-LXXXIX had already been drafted before their meeting, and they were based on a preliminary outline of repeated themes and catch phrases which echo material incorporated in earlier publications. Those five cantos concerned themselves mainly with ancient China and Federal America, outlining the distinction between good and bad governance, and were executed in a far more compact and elliptical form than he had ever used before.