Last words & epigraphs
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Sheri Martinelli: A Modernist Muse
by Steven Moore
No notice was taken by the press of artist-writer Sheri Martinelli’s death in November 1996, unfairly ignoring the significant role she played in the cultural history of our time. A brief overview of her career indicates her range of roles: she was a protégée of Anaïs Nin and is described at length in her infamous Diary; she was the basis for a major character in William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions and then became the muse and (some say) mistress of Ezra Pound (she appears in various guises in the later Cantos); Charlie Parker and the members of the Modern Jazz Quartet hung out at her Greenwich Village apartment; Marlon Brando was an admirer and Rod Steiger collected her art, as did E. E. Cummings; she knew and was admired by all the Beats, Ginsberg was an especially close friend and mentions her in one of his poems, and was herself known in San Francisco in the late 1950s as the Queen of the Beats; H. D. identified with her and wrote about her in End to Torment; Pound wrote the introduction to a book of her paintings, and her art is now in collections throughout the world. She wrote unusual prose and poetry, much of it published in her own ‘zine. She was a regular correspondent with Charles Bukowski, who mentions her in a few of his poems, and was one of the first to publish his work. More recently, she appeared under a pseudonym in Anatole Broyard’s posthumous memoir Kafka Was the Rage, under her own name in David Markson’s novel Reader’s Block, and she was anthologized in Richard Peabody’s A Different Beat. When younger, she even modeled for Vogue and acted in one of Maya Deren’s experimental films. And yet not a single obituary marked the passing of this remarkable woman, whom it was my honor and pleasure to have known the last dozen years of her life, and no account of her life exists anywhere.
So, for the record: Sheri Martinelli was born on 17 January 1918 in Philadelphia, on Ben Franklin’s birthday and in his city, with the given name Shirley Burns Brennan. Her father, Alphonse Brennan, was the son of a fisherman, and in later years Sheri liked to refer to herself as “The Fisherman’s Granddaughter.” Her mother was Mae Trindell, who was from New Orleans. Sheri’s grandmother claimed descent from Scottish poet Robert Burns. Shirley Burns Brennan began using the name Sherry by the time she was a teenager, but she was later told that her first name had the wrong numerological value, so to rectify that she modified it to Sheri. (All her life she had a weakness for occult and metaphysical notions.) She was the oldest of three girls and a brother and was largely responsible for raising them. At some point her family moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey, but in the late 1930s Sheri moved back to Philadelphia to study art, specifically ceramics under John Butler at the Philadelphia School of Industrial Arts.
In Philadelphia she met Ezio Martinelli, a painter and sculptor who was studying at the Barnes Foundation in nearby Merion, Pennsylvania. Born in 1913, he was five years older than Sheri. They got married at the beginning of World War II, and in 1943 Sheri gave birth to a daughter, Shelley (named after the poet). The family moved to New York City, but by the end of the war they had grown apart. Sheri and Ezio separated; she kept his surname, and he kept the daughter. (It’s been said that Sheri left her husband because she felt she was a better painter, though by conventional standards Ezio Martinelli went on to achieve considerably more success in his field than she did: his abstract paintings were regularly exhibited at the Willard Gallery in New York City and respectfully reviewed; several sculptures of his are on display at the United Nations complex; from 1947 to 1975 he taught at Sarah Lawrence College, he won many grants and awards, and so on. A photograph of him receiving one such award appears in Art Digest, 15 September 1947, p. 21.)
Sheri stayed in Greenwich Village, moving into an apartment at 23 Jones Street in the West Village. Talented, beautiful, and intriguingly eccentric, she made a striking impression on all who met her, evident from the writings of those who knew her. In her diary entry for December 1945, Anaïs Nin recounts how she learned that a “romantic-looking girl” was reading her short-story collection Under a Glass Bell and had told her publishing partner Gonzalo Moré that she wanted to meet Nin but was too shy to approach the older woman. Nin suggested that she attend a lecture of hers at Mills College. When Sheri approached her at the end of the lecture, Nin writes, “I recognized her. She was like a ghost of a younger me, a dreaming woman, with very soft, burning eyes, long hair streaming over her shoulders.” At first, Sheri didn’t say a word: “She merely stared at me, and then handed me a music box mechanism, without its box. She finally told me in a whisper that she always carries it in her pocket and listens to it in the street. She wound it up for me, and placed it against my ear, as if we were alone and not in a busy hall, filled with bustling students and professors waiting for me. A strand of her long hair had caught in the mechanism and it seemed as if the music came from it.”
“She came to see me,” Nin goes on, “blue eyes dissolved in moisture, slender, orphaned child of poverty, speaking softly and exaltedly. Pleading, hurt, vulnerable, breathless. Her voice touches the heart. . . . She looks mischievous and fragile. She wears rough, ugly clothes, like an orphan. She is part Jewish, part Irish. Her voice sings, changes: low, gay, sad, heavy, trailing, dreaming” (107-8). Journalist Anatole Broyard, forty years later, remembered her in much the same way: “She had a high, domelike forehead, the long silky brown hair of women in portraits, wide pale blue eyes with something roiling in their surface. Her nose was aquiline, her mouth thin and disconsolate, her chin small and pointed. It was the kind of bleak or wan beauty Village people liked to call quattrocento. Her body seemed both meager and voluptuous. Her waist was so small, it cut her in two, like a split personality, or two schools of thought. Though her legs and hips were sturdy and richly curved, her upper body was dramatically thin. When she was naked it appeared that her top half was trying to climb up out of the bottom, like a woman stepping out of a heavy garment.” (3-4). Nin observed the same dichotomy: “Half of her body is heavy and animal, and the upper half is childlike and fragile” (144).
Sheri approached Nin for the same reason she would approach Pound a few years later: “She came because she felt lost,” Nin writes. “I had found the words which made her life clearer.” She goes on to quote Sheri: “Oh God, all the books one reads which don’t bring you near the truth. Only yours, Anaïs” (108). As ingenuous as it may sound, it was this quest for truth, rather than celebrity-worship, that led Sheri to apprentice herself to writers like Nin and Pound.
Sheri joined Nin’s entourage, a group mostly made up of young male admirers, with whom Nin felt more comfortable than with people of her own age (she was in her mid forties). “The presence of the young lightens the world and changes it from an oppressive, definitive, solidified one to a fluid, potentially marvelous, malleable, variable, as-yet-to-be-created world. I call them the transparent children” (95). At twenty-seven Sheri was a bit older than the young men who surrounded Nin, but she began accompanying them to parties and outings. In the spring of 1946 she joined Nin and the others to act in Maya Deren’s film Ritual in Transfigured Time; she appears in the party scene in the middle of the short film and in the park scene at the end. At this time Sheri was still starstruck; Nin quotes her as gushing, “You’re a legendary character. I keep thinking that in the future I will look back and say: ‘I was here in Yonkers Park with the legendary Anaïs!’” (145).
One of the young men dancing attendance on Nin was a French surrealist poet named Charles Duits (1925-91), who had come to the U.S. in 1941 to attend Harvard, but left it a year or two later to live la vie bohème in New York. He is mentioned frequently in volumes three and four of Nin’s Diary, always singled out as the most brilliant and talented of her “transparent children.” He seems to have been quite taken with Sheri, for he gave her a poem entitled “La Naissance de Sherry Martinelli” (like Nin and some others, he used the earlier form of her first name). Written in French, which Sheri couldn’t read, it was apparently never published; it follows as an appendix to this essay in a translation made by Sheri’s and my mutual acquaintance George Kearns, a Pound scholar (and revised by writer-artist Rikki Ducornet). It is a surrealist birth myth in which no sooner is Sheri born than she is “preyed upon by starving men.” Sheri came across the poem in her papers in 1985; when I sent her Kearns’s translation she commented, “One regrets that it has one’s name on it. Charles Duits was forsooth writing this to his own dream female ‘twin soul’ born into t/mind of t/male that he ever cherishes/nourishes/seeks/desires & possesses in every female he meets outside his mind. His perfect opposite/his extreme norm/his action polarity.” Duits was the first of many “starving men” to mythologize Sheri, an act her strange beauty and endearing eccentricity encouraged. It is the inverse of her own exaltation of wise teachers like Nin and Pound.
In the same diary entry for December 1945 quoted earlier, Nin reports that Sheri was then living with a Chilean-American painter named Enrique Zanarte; Anatole Broyard gives his first name as Nemecio. But she seems to have been living alone in 1946 when she met Broyard, who says he moved in with her and was her lover for about three months. Their affair is recounted at length in his memoir Kafka Was the Rage, written in 1988 but not published until 1993, three years after his death. It is an engaging account of life in Greenwich Village immediately after the war and of the “sentimental education” he received from Sheri (he changed her surname to Donatti to protect her privacy), but its reliability is in doubt. When I sent Sheri a copy of the book in 1993 she insisted Broyard had never spent a single night with her and dismissed the book as “a voyeur’s wet dream.” It’s difficult to know whom to believe. Sheri sometimes misrepresented her past, glossing over some of its scandalous aspects, not so much out of vanity as (she said) to avoid giving young people any encouragement to emulate bad behavior. But Broyard himself was duplicitous; as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., shows in his recent memoir of him, Broyard’s entire life can be said to be a lie. (He hid his black heritage and passed for white, keeping his secret from his friends and family until near the end of his life.) The Sheri Donatti of Kafka Was the Rage certainly has much in common with Sheri Martinelli: Broyard’s physical descriptions of her are accurate and he captures her unique way of talking and her oblique intelligence, but Sheri told me many of his details are wrong: her apartment was clean and comfortable, not dirty and crowded as he says, and she most often wore cloth pants, not the clinging dresses and no underwear that Broyard obsesses over. (He constantly worried that she would inadvertently expose herself, most comically the time she accidentally knocked W. H. Auden over and on top of herself.) In some ways Broyard’s portrait of Sheri is as fanciful as Charles Duits’s surrealistic one and springs from the same male tendency to project desired qualities onto the unsuspecting female. Taken with a huge grain of salt, however, Broyard’s book provides yet another testimony to Sheri’s appeal. For Broyard, she was literally unforgettable; on his deathbed forty years later, Sheri was one of the people he spoke of (Gates 80).
Broyard notes that Sheri was still an abstract painter at the time (like her former husband) and describes a few of her works. She continued to take classes during this time, studying engraving under Stanley William Hayter at the Atelier de Sept. She was in one class with Spanish painter Joan Miró, who ogled her shamelessly; as she later wrote me, “his round blue eyes ‘ate’ all of t/ black net off my chorus girl stockings.” One of her projects was described by Josephine Gibbs in the 15 December 1946 issue of Art Digest:
(Sheri would continue to find “inspiration in the accidental forms of nature” in her later artwork.) This portfolio was limited to 100 copies, priced at $40.00 each; I’ve never seen a copy. In fact, little if any of her art from this period survives. Sheri also kept an ungainly printing press in her apartment at this time, no doubt in emulation of Nin, who owned one and typeset her own books, which she used for her etchings.
During the late 1940s Sheri supported herself by modeling,
principally for Vogue. Such noted photographers as Karl Bissinger,
Cliff Wolfe, Tommy Yee, and Dick Rutledge took hundreds of shots of her. I
haven’t been able to identify any of them in the pages of Vogue,
though Sheri’s second husband has folders full of these photos. Like
many a Vogue model today, Sheri also experimented with heroin during
this time, though not so often as to become addicted.
Broyard writes that Sheri “looked more like a work of art than a pretty woman” (3). She is introduced in The Recognitions in the same way: Otto (Gaddis’s self-deprecating self-portrait) is attending a Greenwich Village party given by Max (Broyard, more or less) when he briefly glimpses “the face of a girl who was sitting alone on the couch, . . . Then she was gone, with the silent consciousness of a painting obscured by a group of nattering human beings” (183). A little later, having taken down a volume of Browning and pretending to read it while spying on her, Otto reads the following lines from “A Likeness” just as he realizes she is watching him:
Her name is Esme, and in almost every respect she is Sheri Martinelli: she lives on Jones Street, has a four-year-old daughter somewhere, owns a printing press, and speaks in a curious way. (Broyard: “Like everything else about her, her style of talking took some getting used to. She gave each syllable an equal stress and cooed or chanted her vowels. Her sentences had no intonation, no rise and fall, so that they came across as disembodied, parceled out, yet oracular too” .) Otto introduces himself and even manages to sleep with her that night, but his relationship to her throughout the rest of the novel is one of frustration. Otto has a rival in the unsavory person of Chaby Sinisterra (based on a jazz musician Sheri knew named Eddie Shu [1918-86]; The Recognitions is very much a roman à clef), but Esme is hopelessly in love with the painter for whom she models, the enigmatic Wyatt Gwyon.
A romantic quadrangle links Wyatt and Otto with the
novel’s two principal female characters, Esme and Wyatt’s
wife Esther (based on a woman Gaddis knew named Helen Parker), both of
whom tolerate Otto only because of Wyatt’s chilly indifference
to them. Both women have additional lovers, making Otto even more
superfluous, and many of the other male characters seem to have slept
with Esme or Esther. But the promiscuity of Greenwich Village women
is hardly Gaddis’s chief concern. Esther and Esme represent
the two traditional forms of female salvation open to the mythic hero,
and their inadequacies as suitable anima figures dramatize Gaddis’s
critique of that very tradition. Though both women share initials
and an avocation for writing, they are diametrically opposed: Esther
is rational, big-boned, ambitious, and writes prose, while Esme is mystical,
delicate, aimless, and writes poetry. Gaddis’s prose sharpens
the contrast further: his character analysis of Esther (78-80) is written
in the well-balanced, logically ordered style of Henry James, an author
Esther admires, while Esme’s equivalent analysis is fractured into
two sections (276-77, 298-302), presaging her incipient schizophrenia,
and written with the illogic of an interior monologue, punctuated with
solipsistic questions and fragments of poems, fictions, and esoteric
trivia. They are united, however, in their unrequited love for
Wyatt and, after losing him, in their despair.
On the one hand, all this sounds like an elaborate revenge fantasy contrived by Gaddis because of Sheri’s indifference to him, but on the other, it shows that he learned from her how ridiculous some of his preconceived notions about her had been. One of the strangest yet memorable heroines in contemporary literature, Esme betrays the absurdities of the role of romantic redemptress forced upon so many female characters by males who prefer virgins and whores to any more complex woman in between. As with Broyard, Sheri provided Gaddis with an invaluable “sentimental education.”
Gaddis sent a copy of The Recognitions to Sheri
upon publication in 1955, but she never read it. At that time she
was visiting Ezra Pound regularly at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington,
DC. She showed the novel to Pound, but he wasn’t interested
in such “verbiage.” “I’ll help your friends
any way I can,” he told her, “but I won’t read their
books.” The jacket carried a blurb by Stuart Gilbert favorably
comparing The Recognitions to Ulysses, so Pound added: “Tell
your friend Joyce was an ending, not a beginning.” (It should
be remembered that Pound didn’t care for Ulysses, and regarded Finnegans
Wake as unreadable.)
In the context of the novel, the letter is a suicide note Esme leaves for Wyatt; Broyard too describes a suicide attempt by Sheri (65-66), but she told me she never attempted suicide. Perhaps she meant she never seriously attempted suicide, because the attempts described in both The Recognitions and Kafka Was the Rage are half-hearted, more theatrical than suicidal.
Gaddis left for Europe in 1948 to write his novel. Anaïs Nin seems to have drifted away by then too; a year earlier Sheri had found a doctor to perform an abortion for Nin (Bair 328), and in later years Nin would send Sheri inscribed copies of her books, but she was no longer part of her entourage. (When Nin died in 1977, Sheri wrote a poem entitled “Goodbye Anaïs,” which was eventually published in the journal Anaïs.) Sheri was popular with jazz musicians at that time, who would hang out at her Jones Street apartment and sometimes give her shirts that they had worn too often on the bandstand. Charlie Parker was a frequent visitor, as were the members of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Sheri painted a splendid abstract portrait of MJQ bassist Percy Heath entitled Daw oo that was later included in her book. At some point she became friends with Leonard Bernstein’s fiancée, Felicia Montealegre (she lived a few blocks from Sheri), who was to become something of a patron to her. It was the heady beginning of the Beat era, and Sheri was leading a hedonistic but (as she later admitted) empty life. In the early 1950s she was living with a musician named Joseph Castaldo, who was studying at Julliard School of Music; aware of her ennui, Castaldo suggested that she go down to Washington, DC, and visit Ezra Pound, then incarcerated at St. Elizabeth's Hospital. There she met the man who would dominate the second half of her life.
Writing in 1973 to one of Pound’s biographers, Sheri gave this lively, freely punctuated account of her state of mind in 1952 when she first met Pound:
Pound was in his own form of Purgatory at the time. Detained
by the U.S. Army in 1945 for making allegedly treasonous broadcasts over
the Italian radio network during the war, Pound had, on the advice of
his lawyers, pleaded insanity rather than risk being tried for treason
(and if convicted, executed), and had been confined since the end of
1945 to St. Elizabeth's Federal Hospital for the Insane. (The government’s
plan was to keep Pound there rather than risk an acquittal after a trial,
so the fiction of his insanity was maintained by sympathetic psychiatrists.) During
his first few years there he was allowed very few visitors, but by 1951
his visiting privileges had been extended, as they would continue to
be over the years. Surrounded by madmen and with the threat of being
tried for treason hanging over his head should he “recover” from
his insanity, Pound was understandably miserable and his creative drive
at a standstill. The Pisan Cantos, written in 1945 while Pound
was incarcerated in Italy, had been published in 1948, and he had written
nothing since. In 1949 Pound won the Bollingen Prize for The
Pisan Cantos, and the controversy surrounding the award attracted
the attention of a new generation of readers, many of whom began making
pilgrimages to St. Elizabeth's in the 1950s to study under the master
at his “Ezuversity” and do his bidding.
Sheri lived in a variety of small apartments in and around Washington, DC, for the next seven years, once sharing a basement apartment with another Pound disciple named David Horton, and visited Pound almost daily. (She did, however, maintain a studio apartment on New York’s Lower East Side for occasional visits; after another disciple, John Kasper, moved to New York and opened his Make It New bookshop on Bleecker Street, Sheri used it as a mailing address. She received more than a hundred letters from Pound during her periods away from St. Elizabeth's.) She joined the growing number of young acolytes who visited Pound, listening to his pronunciamentos and undertaking various projects at his suggestion. Sheri could always be seen with sketchpad in hand, doing studies of the Maestro, and occasionally of Dorothy. Virtually everyone who has written about Pound’s life at St. Elizabeth's mentions Sheri, in terms ranging from praise to bemusement to condemnation. Noel Stock, one of Pound’s earliest biographers, calls her “a strange, rather scatterbrained young woman” (439) and a later biographer dismisses her as a manipulative, troublesome “odd-ball” (Wilhelm 287, 308). On the other hand, one visitor at the time said of her, “so far as I could tell the only visitor of those years who had any perception at all of what Pound was doing then was a young woman painter from one of those ‘passionate religious traditions conscious of its roots in European paganism’” (McNaughton 323), and critic Wendy Stallard Flory goes so far as to suggest that Sheri practically saved Pound’s life, at least his creative life: “the poet sees her as more than an individual; she comes to represent for him the very idea of love as inspiration. Set against the bleak and stultifying reality of the asylum ward, her youth, enthusiasm, and spontaneity must seem to provide a contact with all those things in the outside world that he most minds being shut away from” (246).
Pound playfully called her “La” Martinelli, adding the mock title la more often used in reference to actresses and divas, which Sheri adopted as her professional name thereafter. Pound obviously enjoyed her company: “Seeing Sheri approach across the lawn,” another visitor recalls, “he jumps out of his chair and hurries to greet La Martinelli with his most affectionate and energetic bear hug” (Booth 383). It’s been said she and Pound became lovers, as Sheri herself claimed in a letter to Archibald MacLeish (Torrey 241), though a later biographer doubts the couple would have had much opportunity to do so (Carpenter 803). Allen Ginsberg called Sheri Pound’s “girlfriend,” and one of her musician friends teased her with “I guess you’re Ezra’s pound cake now.” In Timothy Findley’s play The Trials of Ezra Pound, Sheri is portrayed as a concubine, there merely to satisfy Pound’s sexual needs. As late as 1957, they acted like lovers: when David Rattray visited Pound that fall he recorded for the Nation another example of Pound’s greeting Sheri upon her arrival: “Pound embraced her and ran his hands through her hair, and they talked excitedly, each interrupting the other.” “Grandpa loves me,” she told Rattray. “It’s because I symbolize the spirit of Love to him, I guess.” She also boasted, “Grandpa says I know intuitively what it takes a great genius years of study to learn.” When she left, “Pound threw his arms around her, hugged her, and kissed her goodbye.” To Rattray’s critical eye, “Her appearance suggested a frayed and faded survivor of the early bobby-sox days. She had huge eyes like a cat. They bulged in a flushed face that tapered down from an enormous forehead to a tiny chin and tinier double chin. Her lips were tight and pale, but sometimes relaxed and parted into a naive smile. I assumed that she was a patient from another ward.” Sheri was infuriated by Rattray’s article and wanted to sue for slander, but Dorothy talked her out of it.
Pound was attentive to her emotional needs as well. On 23 September 1954 her only brother, Walter Albert Brennan (Buddy to his sister), committed suicide, the result of a decade of misery ever since being wounded in World War II. So great was Sheri’s grief that Pound wrote a “Prayer for a Dead Brother” for her, which was eventually published in 1972. When Charlie Parker died the following year, Pound again attempted to assuage her grief with a poem, which remains unpublished. He also fed her during these years, passing along items from the hospital cafeteria. However, by 1956 he began tiring of her, and “turned her over” (as her second husband put it) to Gilbert Lee, ten years her junior, whom she had met shortly after coming to St. Elizabeth's. Sheri moved in with Gilbert at his mother’s gallery on Mount Vernon Avenue across the Potomac in Alexandria, Virginia. Gilbert drove her into Washington frequently, though, so she could continue her studies at the Ezuversity.
Ostensibly Sheri was at St. Elizabeths to study “the classic arts and letters” (as she would later put it in her résumé), and her art did undergo a change under Pound’s tutelage. “Stay between Giotto and Botticelli,” he advised her, so she supplemented her abstract style with an older, more representational style. She painted portraits almost exclusively, and mostly self-portraits. The paintings are small, 12” by 14” at the largest, and are richly colored. As with Sheri herself, her art elicited contradictory reactions from Pound’s visitors: his U.S. publisher James Laughlin has said “Her drawings were not very good, in fact, quite bad” (24), but Eustace Mullins, a photographer and sculptor among other things, wrote: “She had perfected a jewel-like tone in her painting, much like the ancient Persian painting, which was very effective” (307; a shadowy photograph of Sheri and Mullins is reproduced on p. 292 of his book). Art historian Max Wykes-Joyce paid her splendid tribute by writing, “La Martinelli, Italo-American, brings to painting a sense of hieratic splendour lost since Byzantium. The Testa Invocatrice, the terra-cotta head of a Madonna, no higher than a man’s thumb, is a manifestation of religious art in the direct tradition of Giotto and Crivelli” (249).
Pound himself was delighted with the development of Sheri’s painting under his direction and actively sought to promote her career. His rooms were decorated with her paintings and he proudly talked them up to his visitors. (On p. 339 of the winter 1974 issue of Paideuma there is a photograph from the 1950s of Pound seated at a desk displaying her painting Giotto.) His letters of 1955 are full of exhortations to correspondents like MacLeish and Laughlin to do something for Sheri: grants, foundation support, publication, museum showings, anything, but nothing came of his efforts (Pound/Laughlin 236-42). As late as 1958 he was still trying to get some sort of subsidy for her from a European admirer (Stummvoll 75-78), again without results.
He did, however, arrange for publication in book form of a small selection of her paintings. He suggested the project to Vanni Scheiwiller, the son of Pound’s Italian publisher, and offered to write an introduction for it. David Gordon, a photographer who later became a leading Pound scholar, photographed the paintings he thought should be included, Sheri wasn’t consulted and later was irritated at his selection, and in February of 1956 Scheiwiller published La Martinelli, a miniature booklet (2 ¾” x 4”) limited to 500 copies. It reproduces nine paintings, St. Elizabeth’s Madonna (also reproduced on the cover), Giotto, Patria, Cleofe Santa, Isis of the Two Kingdoms, Daw oo (the portrait of Percy Heath mentioned earlier), Ch’iang (Fortuna), E.P., and Leucothoe, Daughter of Orchamus, and two ceramic works, the Testa Invocatrice admired by Wykes-Joyce and a Ra Set. In his introduction, Pound notes that several of Sheri’s paintings were works in progress (indeed, she would continue working on some of them up until her death) and states: “The unstillness that delayed my recognition till quite a while after that of my less restless contemporaries [e.g., Joyce and Eliot] runs parallel in the work of la Martinelli, who is the first to show a capacity to manifest in paint, or in la ceramica what is most to be prized in my writing” (11). (Pound’s introduction was reprinted later in 1956 in Noel Stock’s magazine Edge with the title “Total War on ‘Contemplatio’”,a phrase from Canto 85,and has been reprinted a few times since.)
Pound mentions two of Sheri’s paintings not included in La Martinelli but that are mentioned in The Cantos: Lux in Diafana and Ursula Benedetta, both dating from 1954. By that time Pound had resumed work on his epic poem, and the next two installments he would publish, Section: Rock-Drill (1956) and Thrones (1959) are, at a basic level, a record of what he was reading and, in Sheri’s case, seeing at St. Elizabeth's. Through the thicket of Pound’s dense, allusive poetry, Sheri can be glimpsed in various guises.
Sheri’s presence in these cantos takes two forms: references to her person and/or her role in Pound’s life at the time, and references to her art. As in The Recognitions, she is mythologized in The Cantos as a romantic figure of redemption, and like Gaddis, Pound associates Sheri with a wide range of women in myth and literature. The first half of Rock-Drill (cantos 85-89) continues the manner and matter of the pre-Pisan cantos in their concern with history and ethics. But Canto 90 makes a sudden shift to the lyrical mode, recalling the love poetry of the troubadours Pound had studied nearly a half-century earlier. “In fact,” writes Italian scholar Massimo Bacigalupo, “the forty pages of [cantos] 90-95 may be taken as a single new Canzone d’amore, modelled upon Cavalcanti’s (and Dante’s) poesis docta and on Provençal trobar clus” (259). (One of Pound’s earliest books had been a translation of the sonnets and ballads of the medieval Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti; Pound gave his personal copy of the book to Sheri, who filled the margins with drawings and love poems to Pound.) Pound later told Sheri that cantos 90-95 were “her” cantos, for like the troubadour’s Lady, she personified love as a creative force. On the second page of Canto 90 the poet cries out to Cythera (Aphrodite), and then addresses a prayer to “Sibylla,” the all-seeing sibyl of the Delphic oracle in ancient Greece. Most critics agree with Carroll F. Terrell’s annotation: “Sheri Martinelli is understood to be the real-life sibyl at St. Elizabeth's” (542). Chanting in liturgical refrain the phrase “m’elevasti” (“you lifted me up,” from Dante’s praise of Beatrice in the Paradiso), Pound registers his gratitude to Sheri for lifting him up out of his personal hell and reanimating him with the spirit of love:
Isis Kuanon conflates the Egyptian goddess with the
Chinese goddess of mercy. Next Sheri is referred to as the mermaid
Undine, a nickname Pound gave her (“Thus Undine came to the rock” [91/630]; “Yes,
my Ondine, it is so god-damned dry on these rocks” [93/643]). Although
this could be a reflection on her dangerous, sirenlike persona, Sheri
was, after all, tempting Pound away from his wife and practicing what
Laughlin learnedly calls “concitatio senectutis (the arousing of
desire in old men)”(25), the undine is another redemptress, especially
when Pound further conflates her with the sea-nymph Leucothea (from book
5 of Homer’s Odyssey). In the second half of Rock-Drill Pound
resumes the persona of wandering Odysseus, and Leucothea makes her smashing
entrance in Canto 91. Appearing in the form of a seagull to Odysseus,
adrift on a raft in wet clothes, Leucothea coos, “my bikini is
worth your raft” (91/636), a flippant paraphrase of her offer to
give him her magic veil in exchange for his wet clothes. The flirty
line is repeated in Canto 95 (665), and even J. J. Wilhelm, who goes
out of his way to deny Sheri’s role in The Cantos, grudgingly
admits that Leucothea “may well have been a tribute to Sheri Martinelli
at this time” (302) for rescuing Pound just as the sea-nymph rescued
Odysseus. When Sheri left St. Elizabeth's in 1958, among the paintings
and drawings she left with Norman Holmes Pearson for safekeeping was
a photograph she had taken of herself in a mirror, wearing a bikini (H.
Next Sheri is referred to as the mermaid Undine, a nickname Pound gave her (“Thus Undine came to the rock” [91/630]; “Yes, my Ondine, it is so god-damned dry on these rocks” [93/643]). Although this could be a reflection on her dangerous, sirenlike persona, Sheri was, after all, tempting Pound away from his wife and practicing what Laughlin learnedly calls “concitatio senectutis (the arousing of desire in old men)”(25), the undine is another redemptress, especially when Pound further conflates her with the sea-nymph Leucothea (from book 5 of Homer’s Odyssey). In the second half of Rock-Drill Pound resumes the persona of wandering Odysseus, and Leucothea makes her smashing entrance in Canto 91. Appearing in the form of a seagull to Odysseus, adrift on a raft in wet clothes, Leucothea coos, “my bikini is worth your raft” (91/636), a flippant paraphrase of her offer to give him her magic veil in exchange for his wet clothes. The flirty line is repeated in Canto 95 (665), and even J. J. Wilhelm, who goes out of his way to deny Sheri’s role in The Cantos, grudgingly admits that Leucothea “may well have been a tribute to Sheri Martinelli at this time” (302) for rescuing Pound just as the sea-nymph rescued Odysseus. When Sheri left St. Elizabeth's in 1958, among the paintings and drawings she left with Norman Holmes Pearson for safekeeping was a photograph she had taken of herself in a mirror, wearing a bikini (H. D. 52).
In Canto 92, Pound writes:
“This passage is surely a tribute to Sherri [sic] Martinelli,” Wendy Flory feels, “and the ‘sphere of crystal’ that the poet holds out to her is perhaps the poetry which she has inspired him to write” (253). Flory goes on to suggest that in Canto 93 Sheri is evoked as Flora Castalia (650), goddess of flowers (256), and Terrell sees another reference to Sheri in Canto 94 as Pound’s “Blue jay, my blue jay” (570). In Canto 97 there are two intriguing descriptions of Sheri’s hair and eyes. Brooding on the Homeric epithet “wine-dark,” Pound again refers to Sheri as “Sibilla” and tries to describe the color of her hair, settling on “russet-gold” (97/695). Sheri had been a brunette earlier, but at St. Elizabeth's she sported “splendid red hair” (Laughlin 24), which she later explained in this wise: “It was a spectacular crimson & it came about because E.P. had placed his hand on one’s head and where E.P. put his hand on one’s hair (a bit later on not instantly) that hair turned crimson. . . . E.P.’s touch (a ‘laying on of hands’??) also deep’n’d t/eye colour into a lavender which E.P. is also noting in C/97 indicating that E.P. was aware of t/changes” (“Pound as Wuz”). Sheri’s second reference is to the lines:
eyes pervanche [violet-blue]
The sibyl at Delphi was also known as the pythoness (from her familiar), and in this guise Sheri makes her final appearance in The Cantos: born “Of the blue sky and a wild-cat, / Pitonessa [Italian for pythoness] / The small breasts snow-soft over tripod” (104/760). Sheri had given Pound a comic drawing of herself as a sibyl, standing next to a tripod and with a python in hand, which Pound thus worked into Canto 104. (Sheri said Pound told her, “T/drawing is good because it shows you can laugh at yourself.”) In fact Sheri gave Pound many comically risqué drawings of herself; the cutest one depicts her nearly nude with a bouquet of flowers in hand and the caption: “’F U Will Be My Valintine I Will Be Yr Kon Que Byne.”
In a similar manner, several of Sheri’s paintings became part of The Cantos. She would show Pound her works in progress and often he would give them titles and then work them into his poem. Her Sibylla of 1954 coincides with her appearance in Canto 90 (written the same year). In Canto 93, the two paintings Pound mentions in his introduction to her book, Lux in Diafana and Ursula Benedetta, become the subjects of the poet’s prayer for compassion:
Sheri’s Lux in Diafana (“light in transparency”) depicts a woman’s face in quarter-profile with rays of light emanating from her forehead, while the Ursula is a full-face portrait of the legendary saint. (Pound’s “benedetta” demotes her to “Blessed.”) Both paintings are idealized self-portraits. The lines “Isis Kuanon / . . . / the blue serpent / glides from the rock pool” (90/626-27) have been associated with Sheri’s painting Isis of the Two Kingdoms, which Pound admired (Gordon 241; Isis is reproduced on 240), though in this case it’s impossible to say which came first. Canto 98 refers to two figures Sheri painted, Princess Ra-Set and Leucothoe (not Homer’s nymph but a character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses), both included in La Martinelli and thus apparently pre-dating the composition of Canto 98. A different Leucothoe (but done in the same medium, sepia on grained wood) appeared in the spring 1955 issue of the Hudson Review as a frontispiece to Canto 86. During this time she did countless portraits of Pound, as I’ve said; one was reproduced as the frontispiece to Pound’s translation of Sophocles’ Women of Trachis (1956). In a poem/commentary on Canto 106 written many years after the event, Sheri recounts how one day she brought to St. Elizabeth's a painting she’d been working on, a portrait of a woman with black hair surrounded by the faces of four girls. The Pounds were seated outside, and when Sheri showed them the painting, “DP sat straight up in her deck chair & said: ‘I’ll TAKE t-h-a-t’ and she did. . . . EP stared @ work said nothing / He went to his room & wrote down in His Book” the opening lines of Canto 106:
Sheri would continue to illustrate figures from The
Cantos after she left St. Elizabeth's, including an Undine in 1964
in memory of Pound’s nickname for her.
“Poor Undine!” H. D. laments. “They
don’t want you, they really don’t. How shall we reconcile ourselves
to this?” (57), remembering that a half-century earlier Pound had
likewise abandoned her to go to Europe. Sheri had commented on the “sea-girls” section
of Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in a poetry
anthology she sent to H. D., and the poet’s last vision of Sheri
is of “our little Undine on her sea-rocks with her wind-blown hair” (59),
At Pound’s suggestion, José Vazquez-Amaral,
another member of the Ezuversity who would eventually translate The
Cantos into Spanish, had arranged for an art scholarship for Sheri
in Jalisco. He also arranged for her and Gilbert to stay with a friend
at his country house in Cuernavaca “in case the Jalisco scholarship
fell through. It did,” Vazquez-Amaral later wrote. “After
a while the fiery and imaginative Sheri was also unwelcome at the Cuernavaca
place” (20). The Mexican authorities expected someone who would
paint pretty landscapes and glorify the republic, but Sheri was more interested
in sketching beggar girls and exploring Aztec temples (H. D. 53). After
about six months Sheri and Gilbert left Mexico for San Francisco.
The latter was published in the Anagogic & Paideumic
Review, a periodical (what we’d now call a ‘zine) she
started in 1959 after settling in San Francisco. Sheri had forgiven Pound by this
time and began the journal to fulfill a promise she made him to help
raise the level of culture in this country. In issue number 4 she
gave this unhelpful explanation of the journal’s forbidding title: “A
= the direction of the will UP & P = the kulchur born in one’s
head or wotever/ authority is E.P. - one might have not been listening
for real but more or less that is wot one recalls.” Actually, “anagogic” is
a spiritual interpretation of a text, and “paideumic” derives
from paideuma, a term Pound picked up from Frobenius to describe “the
tangle or complex of the inrooted ideas of any period” (or, more
simply, the culture taught by educators). Typed by Sheri and mimeographed
in purple ink, the magazine was sold at City Lights book store and mailed
to selected friends and libraries. She usually ran off only fifties
copies of each issue, and not surprisingly few copies exist anymore.
A few supplements to the Anagogic & Paideumic Review were published at various times, one showcasing Bukowski, another a booklet by local poet Sam Suzuki entitled San Francisco Beat Scene: Poetry, but there is no record of any issues beyond number 6. In most ways the magazine is a product of its times. In his memoir Bohemia, Herbert Gold remembers “The hum and whir of the late fifties, early sixties mimeograph machines, churning out beat poetry, deafening me as I walked down North Beach alleys” (37). But Sheri’s contributions stand apart from the usual Beat ramblings of the unknown local writers she published. One piece in particular has attained a certain notoriety over the years: while at St. Elizabeth's Sheri wrote an essay for Pound entitled “Duties of a Lady Female,” a partly tongue-in-cheek primer on how to please a man and defend him from other women (Sheri had been in a few catfights in her time), which Pound found amusing. Sheri published it in the third issue of her magazine, which came into the hands of Diane di Prima, who had stayed with Sheri for two weeks in 1955 when visiting Pound at St. Elizabeth's. When she reprinted the essay in her own magazine Floating Bear (32 : 411-13) di Prima added the disclaimer “The views expressed therein are not necessarily those of the editors.” Sheri’s essay was reprinted recently in Richard Peabody’s A Different Beat, where he appreciably notes “the sarcastic laser” of her observations on male-female relationships.
In San Francisco Sheri reestablished her connection with the Beat Generation, especially since many of the Beats she had known earlier in Greenwich Village migrated to San Francisco in the late fifties. She was introduced to Jack Kerouac during one of his visits there, though he apparently already knew who she was. Describing Kerouac in 1953, Gerald Nicosia writes: “Jack loved the modern young women on the Village scene and was especially intrigued by the ‘Three Graces’: Iris Brodie, Sherry [sic] Martinelli, and a woman known as the ‘silent Madonna’ . . . Wearing granny dresses and junkshop jewelry, her hair in a bun, the painter Sherry Martinelli visited Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth’s [sic] Hospital and became his mistress,” Nicosia concludes, apparently reporting common gossip (455). Sheri’s old friend Allen Ginsberg expresses a similar appreciation of these “very beautiful Jewish girls who read Ezra Pound and were into grandma dresses and sewing and amphetamine and junk and bebop and poesy and kept journals and painted,” and even recorded a disturbing dream of her: “Up north, in the junk pad, a huge Siberian studio, with Sheri, Heine, various ex or present dead or alive junkies,” (Journals xvi, 302). Sheri soon became friends with most of the major Beat writers in San Francisco, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, Philip Lamantia, Bob Kaufman (with whom she was especially impressed), and dabbled in the North Beach scene, a mother hen to the younger beatniks. But mostly she kept to herself, drinking vodka and producing her magazine.
In the early sixties Sheri decided she wanted to get out of the city (though Gilbert would continue to work there as an auto mechanic). She first moved down to a cabin in La Honda, but found the towering redwoods too oppressive, so instead moved into some cabins on the coast about halfway between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, where Tunitas Creek empties into the Pacific Ocean. She would live there at “the Creek” for the next twenty years, though for a mailing address she rented a post office box up in Pacifica, about twenty miles north. The caretaker of the cabins, Walter Clark, would be the subject of a memoir she wrote many years later, which gives some indication of her life there. Though she would soon abandon the Anagogic & Paideumic Review, she continued to write, draw, paint, and make jewelry, at night reading The Cantos by the light of an old kerosene lamp.
In 1964 Sheri gave her first one-woman show. A Cleveland advertising copywriter named Reid B. Johnson had developed an interest in Sheri’s work when making a documentary radio program on Pound while he was still incarcerated at St. Elizabeth's. In the course of corresponding with him, Pound sent Johnson a copy of La Martinelli, which so impressed him that a few years later he decided to organize an exhibit. After first securing Sheri’s cooperation, she agreed to send about twenty oils and drawings, Johnson acquired others on loan, eventually assembling forty-eight works. He then wrote to acquire testimonials to Sheri’s work. Johnson managed to elicit some impressive comments, printed in the show’s four-page program, which is invaluable for the technical descriptions and dates of the works. In addition to quotations from Pound’s introduction to La Martinelli and Wykes-Joyce’s book (quoted earlier), the program contains statements from Robert Lowell (“Sheri Martinelli’s paintings have a style of their own. I admire their grace, dash and uncanniness”), Marianne Moore (“She has a wonderful color sense and the true reverence of the mystic”), and Archibald MacLeish, who loaned Johnson at least one of her paintings and wrote:
The show ran for a month in September 1964 at the Severance Center in Cleveland, and was the subject of a photo-essay by Russell W. Kane in the local paper.
Details are sketchy on Sheri’s life during the second half of the sixties. Allen Ginsberg visited whenever he could, often bringing along a friend like Peter Orlovsky or Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In his 1966 poem “Iron Horse” Ginsberg recalls
A year later Ginsberg visited Pound in Venice and asked a favor:
That blessing “brought tears to Sheri Martinelli’s eyes on the Pacific Ocean edge a year later, ‘68” (“Allen Verbatim” 273). In November 1971 she and Gilbert drove up to Berkeley to attend the American premiere of Pound’s opera The Testament of François Villon. Pound didn’t attend, but Sheri renewed her acquaintance there with Olga Rudge, an earlier mistress/protégée of Pound’s whom Sheri had first met at St. Elizabeths in 1955.
One night at the beginning of November
1972, Sheri went out to check on Walt the caretaker when “a
terrible wind came up. A bad wind. A whistling wind,” she
later wrote. “One recalled that in Hawaii, not too far off
westerly, such a wind is reported to come up when royal persons or sacred
persons are about to die. . . . One thought there was a talking
sound something like: ‘Think ye hard on Ezra Pound’ but
it didn’t make sense” (“A Memoir” 153). The
next morning Sheri learned Pound had died the night before.
The last time I saw Sheri was in late October 1988, just before I left Rutgers to go to Illinois to work for the Dalkey Archive Press. She and Gilbert drove up to New Brunswick, where we were joined by visiting Pound scholar Massimo Bacigalupo. Sheri showed us some of her treasures, including many letters from Pound and some rough drafts of “her” Rock-Drill cantos. We kept in contact over the succeeding years, mostly by phone. Sheri always complained of the endless work involved in organizing her Pound archive while fighting off various illnesses, but these were the most enchanting conversations I have ever had with another person. She spoke in a measured, somewhat melodramatic manner, she reminded me of Carolyn Jones as The Addams Family’s Mortitia, whom Sheri closely resembled in her younger years, and she had a range of tones that would be the envy of any actress, from weariness to outrage to coyness to oracular pronouncements, and she would giggle like a schoolgirl. In her improvised monologues (she did most of the talking) she would quote everyone from Blake to Edgar Cayce, but always returning to The Cantos or some wisecrack E.P. (as she always called him) had made, and talk about everything from the annoying antics of neighborhood kids to psychic experiments in the former Soviet Union. She could be surprisingly witty and funny, and told wonderful (if dizzyingly digressive) anecdotes. She remained intellectually active until the end, asking me about Hesiod’s Theogony or whether I could get an inexpensive Greek dictionary for her. After we finished a phone conversation, ”Good-bye” was too final; she always preferred a sing-song “So l-o-o-o-ng”, I always felt like Coleridge at the end of “Kubla Khan,” a bit dazed at the heady experience. One of the last books I edited before leaving Dalkey in 1996 was David Markson’s extraordinary novel Reader’s Block, published in September of that year. In it, an autobiographical narrator contemplates writing a novel; at the same time, he broods over hundreds of cultural anecdotes and quotations, which make up the bulk of the novel. With spaces separating its one- or two-sentence fragments, Reader’s Block superficially resembles Rock-Drill in that it too employs what Pound called “the method of Luminous Detail.” On pages 74-75 of Markson’s novel this sequence of thoughts comes to the narrator:
The first line is from Gaddis’s Recognitions,
quoted earlier. A few moments later the narrator
realizes he happens to know that Esme was based on a woman named Sheri
Martinelli, and records it as one more example of the cultural trivia cluttering
up his mind, on par with an obscure Latin translator.
(Written ca. 1946; trans. George Kearns and Rikki Ducornet)
Bacigalupo, Massimo. The Forméd Trace: The Later Poetry of Ezra Pound. New York: Columbia U P, 1980.
Bair, Deirdre. Anaïs Nin: A Biography. New York: Putnam’s, 1995.
Booth, Marcella. “Ezrology: The Class of ‘57.” Paideuma 13.3 (Winter 1984): 75-88.
Broyard, Anatole. Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir. New York: Crown/Carol Southern, 1993.
Bukowski, Charles. “Horse on Fire.” The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems 1946-1966. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 1988. 70.
------. Screams from the Balcony: Selected Letters 1960-1970. Ed. Seamus Cooney. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 1993.
Carpenter, Humphrey. A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
Deren, Maya. Ritual in Transfigured Time. 1945-46. In Experimental Films, 1943-1959. Mystic Fire Video, 1986.
Findley, Timothy. The Trials of Ezra Pound. Winnipeg: Blizzard, 1994. Flory, Wendy Stallard. Ezra Pound and The Cantos: A Record of Struggle. New Haven: Yale U P, 1980.
Gaddis, William. The Recognitions. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1955.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “White Like
Me.” New Yorker, 17 June 1996, 66-72, 74-81.
------. Composed on the Tongue: Literary Conversations, 1967-1977. Ed. Donald Allen. San Francisco: Grey Fox, 1980.
------. “Iron Horse.” Collected Poems 1947-1980. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.
Gold, Herbert. Bohemia. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Gordon, David. “From the Blue Serpent to Kati.” Paideuma 3.2 (1974): 239-44.
Guest, Barbara. Herself Defined: The Poet H. D. and Her World. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.
H. D. End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1979. Heymann, C. David. Ezra Pound: The Last Rower. New York: Viking/Richard Seaver, 1976.
Kane, Russell W. “A One-Woman Art Show.” Cleveland Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine, 6 September 1964, 6-7.
Laughlin, James. Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 1987.
McNaughton, Bill. “Pound, A Brief Memoir: ‘Chi Lavora, Ora.’” Paideuma 3.3 (Winter 1974): 219-24.
Markson, David. Reader’s Block.
Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive P, 1996.
------. “Duties of a Lady Female.” Anagogic & Paideumic
Review 1.3 (1959). Rpt. in A Different Beat: Writings
by Women of the Beat Generation. Ed. Richard Peabody. London and
New York: Serpent’s Tail/High Risk, 1997. 154-58.
------. [Letter to the editor.] Paideuma 6.3 (Winter 1977): 415-16.
------. “Canto CVI.” Unpublished
poem/commentary, dated 6 December 1984.
------. “A Memoir.” Paideuma 15.2-3 (Fall-Winter 1986): 151-62. ------. “Pound as Wuz.” Unpublished commentary on Laughlin (above), dated 11 April 1988.
------. “Goodbye Anaïs.” Anaïs: An International Journal 12 (1994): 77.
Mullins, Eustace. This Difficult Individual, Ezra Pound. New York: Fleet, 1961. Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.
Nin, Anaïs. The Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1944-1947. Ed. Gunther Stuhlmann. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
Pound, Ezra. “Prayer for a Dead Brother.” Antigonish Review 8 (Winter 1972): 27.
------. The Cantos. New York: New
Directions, 1995 (Thirteenth Printing).
Rattray, David. “Weekend with Ezra Pound.” Nation 185 (16 November 1957): 343-49.
Stock, Noel. The Life of Ezra Pound: An Expanded Edition. San Francisco: North Point, 1982.
Stumvoll, Josef. “Ezra Pound schreibt
uns.” Biblos (Vienna) 8.2 (1959): 74-83.
Torrey, E. Fuller. The Roots of Treason: Ezra Pound and the Secret of St. Elizabeths. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.
Vazquez-Amaral, José. “La Martinelli.” Rutgers Review 4.1 (Spring 1970): 19-21.
Wilhelm, J. J. Ezra Pound: The Tragic Years, 1925-1972. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State U P, 1994.
Wykes-Joyce, Max. 7000 Years of Pottery and Porcelain. New York: Philosophical Library, 1958.
Undocumented quotations from Sheri Martinelli are from my correspondence and phone conversations with her, 1983-96. Further information was supplied by Gilbert Lee during phone conversations in 1997. See also my introduction to Beerspit Night and Cursing: The Correspondence of Charles Bukowski and Sheri Martinelli, Black Sparrow Press, 2001.