A spring day, 1972, best I can remember. I had taken the train from St. Paul, along the Mississippi, across green Wisconsin, to Chicago. And now, just checked into my crummy hotel, I was hurrying to meet a friend at the Chicago Art Institute, a place I didn’t know. We had agreed on the museum cafeteria, and I was directed by a guard through a series of connected galleries to a staircase. I was late—of course. Rushing—of course—paying no attention to the paintings on the walls as I hurried to get where I was supposed to have been five minutes earlier.
Then, unexpectedly, several galleries shy of my destination, I came to a halt before a large, rather muddy painting in a heavy gold-colored frame, a Matisse labeled Femme et poissons rouges, rendered in English, Woman Before an Aquarium. But that’s wrong: I didn’t halt, didn’t stop. I was stopped. Apprehended, even. That’s how it felt. I stood before the painting a long minute. I couldn’t move away. I couldn’t have said why. I was simply fastened there.
I wasn’t in the habit of being moved by art. I wasn’t much of a museum goer. I’d never even taken an art history class, and I thought of myself as a person almost uniquely ungifted in the visual arts. “Patricia, dear,” Sister Antoinette had said as she swished between the desks of the second graders at St. Luke’s School to see what we had drawn on the construction paper she had passed out for the class frieze, “you don’t need to tape yours on the blackboard with the others. You can do the lettering underneath.”
I took it as a life assignment—doing the lettering underneath. Let the others not only make the drawings but look at the drawings. Fingerpaints, I remember dimly, had been delicious. I excelled at slinging raw color on big sheets, rubbing spirals with my fists, scraping squiggles with my nails. But I couldn’t draw, couldn’t see how to lure images from eye to hand to paper. I could only get things by writing them, reading them. In the beginning, truly for me, was the Word.
Maybe only someone so innocent of art history could be riveted by a picture as I was that day by Matisse’s gazing woman. I had grown up in the magical realism of pre–Vatican II Catholicism, and the possibility of an ordinary person being visited by apparitions was packed into the dark kit of my mind. Bernadette in her wooden clogs picking up kindling; the Virgin appearing out of nowhere in the cleft of a rock—why not? Being spoken to by a picture? I couldn’t deny it.
One way or another, ever since that uncanny moment in the Chicago Art Institute when I was searching not for art but for the cafeteria, I’ve been staring inwardly at that painting of the thoughtful woman who stares, in turn, at a goldfish bowl. She—it, the entire wordless logic of Matisse’s deftly composed rectangle—became in an instant, and remained, an icon. I would have worn it around my neck like a holy scapular if the museum shop had sold such a thing.
Of course I did buy a postcard of the picture. It is propped still on my desk, as it has followed me around to all my rooms, all my desks, over the years: the woman with her no-nonsense post–Great War bob, chin resting on crossed hands, elbows propped on the peachy table where, slightly to the left, a pedestal fishbowl stands, surrounded by pinecones and a few needly branches strewn with artful carelessness. A small white rectangle rests on the table as well—a notepad. Of course: she’s a writer. Eventually she will say something about the goldfish. Behind the woman a blue screen—Moroccan, I later learned—a prop Matisse brought back to his Nice studio from one of his North African trips. It hints at a mysterious aqua beyond.
The woman’s head is about the size of the fishbowl and is on its level. Her eyes, though dark, are also fish, a sly parallelism Matisse has imposed. Her steady eyes are the same fish shape, fish size, as the orange strokes she regards from beneath the serene line of her plucked brows. The woman looks at the fish with fixed concentration or somnolent fascination or—what is the nature of her fishy gaze that holds in exquisite balance the paradox of passion and detachment, of intimacy and distance? I wonder still.
I absorbed the painting as something religious, but the fascination was entirely secular. Here was body-and-soul revealed in an undivided paradise of being. An adult congruence, not the cloudy unity of childhood memory. A madonna, but a modern one, “liberated,” as we were saying without irony in 1972. Free, even, of eros. Not a woman being looked at. This woman was doing the looking.
But for once I wasn’t thinking in words; I was hammered by the image. I couldn’t explain what the picture expressed, what I intuited from it. But that it spoke, I had no doubt. I was just starting my life, fresh from university, dumb job, no “skills,” outfitted only with a vexed boyfriend life, various predictable dreamy dreams, plenty of attitude. An English major on the loose at last.
I knew that the woman in the painting, whoever, whatever she was, held in the quality of her gaze the clairvoyant image of a future I wanted, a way of being in the world that it would be very good to achieve—if it could be achieved.
And what was that? What was she? A woman regarding a glass globe: in the fishbowl, several aloof residents, glinting dimly from their distorting medium, hypnotic but of no particular use. This modern woman looks, unblinking, at the impersonal floating world. Detached, private, her integrity steeped not in declarative authority but in an ancient lyric relation to the world. Something of eternity touched her. She was effortless. Or, as the deep language of my old faith would have said, she was blessed. That was it. Like the English major I was, I had my metaphor. Or at least I had my icon. She existed timelessly, this gazer at the golden fish suspended in their transparent medium. Who she was and what she regarded existed in the same transcendent realm. Apparently I was already feeling the crush of time as an injury, an assault. So young, so ambitious (I was), but already squeezed and breathless, hating the just demands of schedules and duties. I worked for a radio station, editing copy, a deadline-beset existence. But I seemed to possess a memory trace, something imprinted not from my own experience but from instinct, of how life should be. It should be filled with the clean light of that gaze, uninterrupted. Looking and musing were the job description I sought. Isn’t that why I’d majored in English to begin with, without knowing it? Not to teach, not to be alibrarian, not for a job. To be left alone to read an endless novel, looking up from time to time for whole minutes out the window, letting the story impress itself not only on my mind, but on the world out there, letting the words and world get all mixed up together. To gaze at the world and make sentences from its passing images. That was eternity, it was time as it should be, moving like clouds, the forms changing into story.
But I was beginning to see, now that I was out of school, that the world was not set up for sitting and staring, that time was no friendly giant lofting me gently into the imagination. Maybe somewhere “back there” in human history time had been, like these uncaring fish, effortlessly buoyant. That was my odd youthful nostalgia—a yearning for a state of being I’d only experienced while reading long nineteenth-century novels as a girl. It was an existence composed entirely of the mind floating unimpeded over experience. Thoughts of this sort, no doubt, are what gave rise to the belief the ancients held of the Golden Age. And goldfish, I had read somewhere, were for the ancients the emblem of that ineffable lost Golden Age. The ancients hadn’t experienced their Golden Age,