Summary of A Smile To Remember by Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski, original name Heinrich Karl Bukowski is a poet who was associated with the dirty realism. He was a German-American novelist, poet and columnist. Bukowski’’s writings were influenced by the social, political, and economical ambience of his city of residence, Los Angeles. Here, I am going to analyse the poem “A Smile to Remember”.

we had goldfish and they circled around and around
in the bowl on the table near the heavy drapes
covering the picture window and
my mother, always smiling, wanting us all
to be happy, told me, ‘be happy Henry!’
and she was right: it’s better to be happy if you
but my father continued to beat her and me several times a week while
raging inside his 6-foot-two frame because he couldn’t
understand what was attacking him from within.

The poet starts the poem by describing about the goldfish he had in an aquarium in his house, where they would keep circling. In these lines, the poet is telling about his mother, who would keep asking him to be happy and smile. She always smiled and showed him how to be happy. But his father would beat her every week atleast thrice, and yet she would pretend to be happy. His father is someone who could never understand what is attaching him within which has made him this violent and demonic.

The poem is full of paradoxes. The first one is that his mother kept instructing him to smile and be happy, and also showed him how to be happy by smiling herself. In this stanza, the poet has put happiness against sadness in the lines, “and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the saddest smile I ever saw.” This line shows that there was desperation amongst the family to smile and be happy.
my mother, poor fish,
wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a
week, telling me to be happy: ‘Henry, smile!
why don’t you ever smile?’

and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the
saddest smile I ever saw

The poet is speaking that inspite of all the abuses, his mother would still ask him to be happy and would ask him to be happy as well. She would smile and show how to do it, and when she would smile, the poet would see the saddest smile ever.

The poet is observant of all the things that his mother goes through and feels, but he is not able to help, and neither is his mother. However, she asks him to smile be happy, as if nothing happened. She hides all her pain and sorrow inside her heart.

one day the goldfish died, all five of them,
they floated on the water, on their sides, their
eyes still open,
and when my father got home he threw them to the cat
there on the kitchen floor and we watched as my mother

In these lines, the poet says that one day all of the five goldfish died suddenly. The poet gives an imagery of how the goldfish died and how they looked like when they were dead. They had their mouth and eyes wide open, and they floated on water on their sides. But when his father got home, he just threw the fish to a cat in the kitchen to eat. When they looked at the mother, she was still smiling.

The goldfish are the paradox here that like the fish, the mother, too, cannot express their feelings. The mother is also shown to be silent against all the violence that his father puts her through, yet she asks the poet to smile and be happy. The way the father threw the fish towards the cat shows lack of love, care, and concern. But inspite of all these, the poet says that the mother was still smiling, not being able to express what she is feeling or is going through.

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