Portrait de Raymond Queneau

Voici un petit portrait en aquarelle du fondateur de l’Oulipo, Raymond Queneau qui a compris l’enjeu sérieux des jeux de mots et qui a apporté son esprit ludique aux sujets les plus graves. L’un de mes héros littéraires, un vrai génie qui a fait une marque incontournable sur l’histoire de l’écriture. Parmi ses livres, pour moi c’est Exercices de style qui ne cesse jamais de servir comme inspiration. En plus d’écrivain et mathématicien, Queneau était traducteur et a traduit Amos Tutuola, Sinclair Lewis et Billy Wilder de l’anglais au français.

Lunii publishes positive audio stories for children

September is World Kid Lit Month, so it seems like a good time to acknowledge the remarkable work being done over at Lunii to produce positive audio stories for children. Each Lunii album is composed of a set of interrelated narratives that can be listened to in any order. These albums are played on a device designed for little hands. The user selects the story using a simple interface of just one knob and three buttons; my daughter has been operating it since she was two years old. The device’s screen is only used to display icons that help the kids choose stories, and it turns off as soon as a story starts playing, so this truly is a single-function audio device with no distractions. Stories are available in French, Spanish, English, Italian, and German.
Every parent knows how hard it is when a kid has trouble falling asleep. I used to make myself hoarse reading, singing, and telling stories to my daughter. Now that My Fabulous Storyteller is part of our bedtime routine, I can read or tell her a few stories, then switch on the Storyteller, turn off the light, and she’s usually asleep within minutes! At the Luniistore, there are a few different albums specifically designed for bedtime, including Goodnight Stories, Sweet Dreams Stories, and Relax in the Clouds: I Can Fall Asleep.
The Relax in the Clouds stories depict the types of struggles that kids are familiar with–not wanting to go to bed, feeling too excited, feeling angry, sad, or shy. All of the narratives seem to be guided by growth mindset; for example, the protagonist’s little wizard friend Mr. Snorr used to be a villain, but now he has changed his ways and helps kids all over the world fall asleep.
In addition to Relax in the Clouds, I have also had the pleasure of editing Christiana Hills’ fine translations of The Luminaries, Panic in the Six Kingdoms, and–coming soon!–a wonderful little album of new adventures of Babar the elephant and his family. This year, I edited James Monaco’s translation of The Big Concert, a really fun album for older kids who love rock and roll, and I also translated an album of Christmas stories which will also be released soon.
As a parent of young children, I’m always on the lookout for high-quality children’s literature that doesn’t make me groan at ridiculous stereotypes and outdated gender norms. Lunii is doing important work by publishing stories that not only transcend the good-vs.-evil dualism found in so many fairy tales, but also present positive images of girls in action and leadership roles. I am honored to be a Lunii editor and translator!

Salut Henri

Yesterday in the last sun before Henri
not a scorcher but a steamer
the maiden voyage of the new lawnmower
and then out back tacking plastic over spongy windows
donating blood to the swarm, before

friends gathered in the hot gloom
of dissipating empire:
eggplant, sweet peppers, summer squash,
ground beef and chicken shawarma,
in plodding silence rimmed with exhaustion.

“Have you been taking measures
to weatherize the farm?”
“Not much you can do. Row cover just beats ’em up more.
Tomorrow’s going to be a nail-biter.”

I am one who has hunkered.
I have watched centenarian pines
uprooted under the sky’s pale fury
I have shivered and cursed the wind
and begged it to stop.

And now Henri arrives, dragging his feet
in fits and bouts and warnings and stress naps.
There is some flooding in Rhode Island.
We’ll see what we receive here in Western Mass.

Let my daughter sleep. Let my son sleep.
Let my wife sleep. Let me draw two elephants.

Until we are all ranting like the soap bottle
Let the wind remind us
Everything depends
on everything
is not some rare quirk
but everywhere.
So I remain the partisan of river otter
standard bearer of bumblebee
acolyte of anemone
and such thoughts blunt the fear a bit
but only a bit.

I am not afraid of Henri.
But I don’t like this trajectory.

How many people know that elephants have
and need culture? That they pass knowledge
down the generations
and that any rupture in the chain
means something much like death?

Henri never took anyone’s language
Henri didn’t burn down half of Borneo for palm oil
Henri didn’t sell ivory and tiger penis
Henri didn’t obliterate habitats
murder the wolf and bison
eviscerate the earth
despoil the water
choke the air with soots of progress

I am not afraid of Henri
I’m afraid of you and me.

Biography of Jacques Poissant

The following is a translation of the introductory chapter to the Généalogie de la Famille Poissant, written by Dr. J.C. Poissant, published in Montreal in 1909. This translation is a work in progress, a labor of love, my contribution to my family’s history. My grandmother, Lorna Diteman (née Fish), was a daughter of the Poissant family; her grandparents are listed in the Genealogy. I find it highly interesting that upon immigrating to the USA, her parents chose to translate the family name to Fish (a few other branches of the family changed the name to Fisher). The Genealogy is a 300-page family tree covering seven generations of Canadian Poissants, from the first ancestor to make the journey from France in 1684 to the time of publication in 1909. That founding ancestor, Jacques Poissant, was embroiled in the great conflicts of his day, including the religious persecution of Protestants and France’s struggle to protect its North American colonies against adversaries both indigenous and British. I wish to make it clear that this translation is in no way intended to glorify colonialism; the source text makes repeated reference to the “savage” Iroquois. I have preserved this wording in the name of historical accuracy, not because I endorse those racist sentiments.



Jacques Poissant, also known as La Saline

Founder of the Canadian Branch


On the 12 of November, 1684, a ship dropped anchor off the coast of Quebec after a long and difficult crossing. It was late in the year for such a journey in those days, considering the capacity of the vessels and the state of the sea in that season, when the storms of the equinox doubled the dangers of sailing. Tossed by wind and waves like little toys or nutshells, the sailing ships of the day often took two or three months to cover the distance that a modern transatlantic can do in a few days. That is what happened to the ship that was bobbing in the harbor, covered with ice and frost. Upon the urging of Monsieur de la Barre and Monseigneur de Laval, who had begged Louis XIV not to abandon the colony to the extreme peril incurred by the resumption of the war with the Iroquois, the king sent 300 soldiers, commanded by captains Montortier, Denos, and Du Rivau. Having left La Rochelle during the last days of the month of August, the vessel that carried them had suffered all the furies of the ocean.

Canada was in a critical situation, and this assistance filled the heart of the old bishop with joy, and he hastened to thank the king. The failure of the government’s campaign against the Iroquois, and the shameful pact that he had been forced to agree to with those savages, were the sad news that Monseigneur de Laval brought to the Court in person when he went to France a few days later. This resulted in the recall of Mr. de la Barre and the appointment of Mr. de Denonville as governor, the following spring, with 500 more soldiers to confront the situation.

The problem was, for half a century already, the two old European rivals, France and England, had continued their secular battles on the new continent. Side by side the two colonies that they had founded kept growing and growing, all the while carrying on the squabbles of the mother countries. Anxious to possess unexplored territories, the missionaries and trappers of the two races traveled the country ceaselessly, penetrating deeper into the forest and taking possession of the land, planting the national flag.

The disbanding of the regiment of Carignan in 1665,[1] with nearly all the soldiers being sent to New France, had been a major boon to the colony. After that, a great number of parishes were established, still today dotting both sides of the river from Montreal to the Gulf. The appointment of Mr. de Talon and the strong administration by Mr. de Frontenac had also contributed to the prosperity of New France. While Jolliet and P. Marquette were discovering the Mississippi, while La Salle was taking possession of the Great Lakes, and the Jesuit priests were exploring all the West, where Nicolas Perrot rounded up the savage tribes at Michillimakinac, Father Albanel claimed the discovery of Hudson’s Bay, contested by the English who, with the assistance of two French merchants, traitors to their country, had set up fur trading posts. This was a new area for disputes. Eager to preserve their trading rights and to ensure that the Bourbon flag would be respected on American soil, Louis XIV, understanding that it was necessary to act with conviction, sent all the troops he could afford.

Among the soldiers who came to defend the French possessions in Canada was Jacques Poissant, known as “La Saline,” founder of the Canadian branch of this name, whose members are traced in this book. He belonged to the regiment of Mr. de Cadillac, according to some historians, or to that of Mr. de Noyan, according to Monseigneur Tanguay. Thus, in his statement of denunciation of Protestantism, reproduced a few pages below, it says that Jacques Poissant was a soldier “under M. de Cadillac,” while in the act of concession of the Monsieurs de Saint-Sulipice, he is listed as a marine soldier “under M. de Noyan.” Did he belong to one regiment first, and then move to the other? That would explain the different listings in the two official documents.

This title “marine soldier” does not, however, imply that Jacques Poissant was a sailor or did maritime service. According to Sulte, it results simply from the fact that, when he took command of the French Navy, Colbert assigned to himself the budget of the regiments deployed in the colonies, instead of leaving it in the hands of the Minister of War. Receiving their salary from the Navy Office, these soldiers where known thenceforth by this name, even though they were not actually in the Navy.

Jacques Poissant was born in Marennes, France, on July 12, 1661, from the marriage of Jacques Poissant “La Saline” and Isabelle Magard or Magos, according to certain Canadian registries; the new defender of New France was therefore only twenty-three years old when he left his country and his little hometown. His parents, who were Calvinists like the majority of the inhabitants of La Rochelle and the surrounding areas, had just died, probably leaving him alone in the world, as no brothers or sisters are listed in the archives of Marennes and the nearby villages. However, they do contain official documents of a large number of Poissants, although nothing indicates familial relations with the one we are interested in.

A few of them were famous, a sculptor among others, named Thibault Poissant, born in Estrees (Somme) in 1605, and died in Paris on September 16, 1668. He had been the student, in Amiens, of Nicolas Blasset, and, in Paris, of Sarrasin, who employed him in works on the Louvre. Thibault Poissant obtained a pension to work in Rome and, on his return, executed a great number of statues and bas-reliefs for the castles of the Louvre, the Tuileries Garden, the Palace of Versailles, and for the churches of Reims, Andelys, and Paris. He was admitted to the French Royal Academy on March 17, 1663. Thibault had a brother who was a talented architect, who died in Paris on April 3, 1669.

Were these two Poissants the uncles of our Canadian ancestor? It is possible. They were, in any case, contemporaries of his father and came from nearly the same province and the same age.

At the time when the Poissants lived in Marennes, the salt trade was still much more important than it is today, and the nickname “La Saline” probably came from a few salt marshes exploited by the family; but this trade does not seem to have been profitable for them, as information gathered from those local areas seem to suggest that they were simple artisans, fishermen perhaps, like a great number of inhabitants of Marennes. This city was in fact an important fishing port at that time. Today, Marennes is the seat of the arrondissement of Lower Charente, on the Seudre River, thirty-one kilometers from La Rochelle, which was the point of departure for nearly all the ships heading for Canada, and six kilometers from Brouage, the hometown of the founder of Quebec, Samuel de Champlain. Nowadays it is only two kilometers from the Atlantic, which endlessly gnaws at the beach and with each high tide dumps its excess water in the neighboring marshes. Its population, mostly Calvinist, is approximately six thousand inhabitants. It has a civil and trade court, and still is home to major operations producing salt, wine, marsh beans, peas, corn, and especially oysters, both green and Portuguese, famous far and wide. Imports consist of coal and wood from the North, and there is a chemical factory as well as several distilleries.

Rather well built, but unhealthy due to the nearby marshes which earned it the nickname “Colloque des Iles” (“Gathering of Islands”), Marennes does not have any old monuments except for a Huguenot temple and a Catholic church which dates to the fourteenth century, whose high, gray tower catches the tourist’s eye. In the twelfth century, the city was part of the Abbey of Saintes, but later, around the sixteenth century, it was annexed to La Rochelle, and suffered from the arrangement. In 1548, its inhabitants rebelled against the salt tax and became protestants. That is when the religious persecutions began. Henri the Second, who had succeeded his father, François the First, showed excessive force against the Calvinists. His Edicts of Chateaubriand, in 1551, and of Ecouen, in 1553, declared the death penalty for protestants caught practicing their religion in secret. In 1568, Marennes underwent a siege which would last for two years. The ascension of Henri the Fourth to the throne of France and the publication of the Edict of Nantes, which promised the Calvinists religious liberty and important privileges, brought peace to the people of Marennes, as well as to all of France, which had been suffering for fifty years under internecine religious wars. But the respite was brief. Soon afterward, the persecutions resumed, now crueler than ever. The Cardinal Richelieu had three great ambitions, and one of them was the abolition of Protestantism in France. He brought terrible blows to the Calvinists of Marennes and La Rochelle in particular; finally, Louis XIV, who continued Richelieu’s policies, permanently demolished their power by revoking the Edict of Nantes, which until then had preserved a few liberties for them. This act of oppression led a great number of them to decide to leave the country. More than one hundred thousand Reformists expatriated, bringing their money and industry with them, a major blow to France’s fortune.

Probably swept along in this wave of emigration, Jacques Poissant, orphaned of father and mother, and with no serious tie to his country, resolved to go seek his fortune in America. Was the approach of religious persecution the immediate cause of his departure? We do not think so, because on arriving in Canada he encountered the same laws that were in effect in France. Chance, a spirit of adventure, and the choice of his regiment by the king to go to the aid of New France—these were the only reasons for his departure. Upon his arrival in Quebec, he was ordered to pass the winter in Montreal, with his comrades in arms, in order to protect the inhabitants of Ville-Marie against the incursions of the Iroquois. In the spring of 1685, they were stationed at Pointe-aux-Trembles, recently established as a parish with a resident priest. On Palm Sunday, during great mass, Jacques Poissant renounced Calvinism, along with one of his fellows, Isaac Fore (aka “Laprairie”), and their renunciation is documented in the following statement.

[Source text includes a reproduction of the statement of renunciation in archaic French. I’ll tackle that in my next installment]


[1] In fact, the Carignan regiment was merged with the Salières regiment and sent to New France.

In the studio

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Isn’t that A Tale of Two Cities?” says my dad over the phone. “Yeah, that’s the first line.” “Well, it sure is these days.” “You got that right.”

In these frightening times, I feel very lucky to be taking one day a week to paint at a private studio in Vermont which my mother-in-law and her partner are renting. I’ve been going there all summer, making this the first time since the kiddo was born that I’m able to paint regularly. When I go, I don’t even listen to music, I just enjoy the near-total silence of the space.

Now that I’m painting regularly, I like to have five or six canvases going at any given time, so that when I finish a layer on one painting I can set it aside and work on something else.

[work in progress]

This sustained effort is allowing me to develop some of the techniques I’ve been thinking about over the years, particularly the use of translucent glazes over textured surfaces. I’m interested in the way the paint pools in the little recesses and rests on the peaks, depending on how it’s applied, and how these effects can be used to give illusions of light and depth.

My ideal canvas already has two or three finished paintings lying on top of one another to give this really built-up, textured look, before I prime it one last time and start blocking in the final image. I love to follow the chaos that develops this way, trying to find a compromise between the indeterminacy of the texture and the intentionality of representation.

[work in progress]

Not all of my paintings have a chunky texture underneath; the commissioned portrait shown above has a subtler texture from a splotchy application of gesso. This smaller, more consistent tooth allows me to explore texture effects while still pursuing a flattering likeness.

This octopus shows the effects of transparent glazing on a very high-relief, sculptural surface which started out random and then narrowed in on some intentional features, especially the brow and the beak. A metallic turquoise glaze gives the water a shimmery, gaudy effect. My favorite aspect of this piece is the transition from pale to black, with this heavy-metal lightning look created by dry-brushing gesso over black paint and then glazing blue on top of that.

[work in progress]

I’m doing this landscape from my imagination, which explains why it still looks a bit cartoonish. This piece is full of experiments in the use of the pallet knife and fan brush for texture. Hopefully when it is finished it will have a good feeling of depth.

This is an example of a portrait created using indirect painting techniques I’ve learned from studying the Old Masters and from working with artist friends. The final surface has five to eight layers of paint at varying levels of transparency. It’s nice to be able to alternate between working on pieces with this high level of precision and other pieces that are more loose and gestural, depending on my mood. Sometime, highly focused painting like this is actually quite relaxing, but sometimes I don’t have the patience for it.

I’ve been working on this portrait of Breonna Taylor. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it when it’s done. My motivation for doing this is to capture some of the joy and beauty of this person who has become famous for her violent death, but who deserves to be remembered as a living, breathing human being with friends, family, feelings, dreams–all these things that get erased by racial violence and the discourse that surrounds it. Painting someone’s portrait is a way of spending time in the contemplation of their humanity, and more than once while painting this I have been moved to tears. Black lives matter! Justice for Breonna!

I walk around my neighborhood singing “What a Wonderful World” while pushing the stroller, hoping the kiddo will fall asleep. It’s all here, green trees, blue sky, friendly neighbors, right down to the baby. In such moments, it is possible to believe the words. It was certainly no easier to do so back in 1967 when Louie sang it; on the recording it sure sounds like he believes. What is this spirit that finds wonder in what is good even in times of turmoil?

If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of my friends, in which case you ought to know that I miss the bejeezus outta you. Thanks for looking at my paintings; you can see more in my portfolio.