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
raging inside his 6-foot-two frame because he couldn't
understand what was attacking him from within.

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

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

Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski reached worldwide recognition with over fifty books of verse and poetry counting such novels like Post Office,Factotum and Ham on Rye, and the script for the film Barfly. Before the release of Barfly, Bukowski was best known as a novelist and poet saying that he did not consider himself a poet, but merely a writer. "To say I'm a poet puts me in the company of versifiers, neontasters (sic), fools, clods, and scoundrels masquerading as wise men." He made it clear that he disliked "form" in poetry calling it a "a paycheck for learning to turn the same screw that has held things together." Michael Mccullough at litkicks writes, “He was a prolific (it isn't known how much he had written; much of it was sent off to publishers long-hand and never seen again), free-formed, humorous, and painfully honest writer. His topics included hang-overs, the shit stains on his underwear, classical music, horse-racing and whores. He was at home with the people of the streets, the skid row bums, the hustlers, the transient life style. His language is the poetry of the streets viewed from the honesty of a hang-over.”

Poems written between 1970 and 1990 focus on the poet’s standard topics: poverty, drunkenness, his tribulations with women and his neighbors, horse gambling, and a bleak childhood, as recounted in A smile to remember. Highlighting the central tension that runs through most of his work, cruel anger pitted against passive despair, it is a reasonable retort to a world that likes to burden everyone with conformity and labeling “losers” for those who refuse convention. It’s a cheerless scene that portrays a patently obvious image to those who are familiar with it, of life in an abusive home.

The mother attempts to keep things together with a smile, she tries to keep her children from seeing the pain with the pretense that "all is really fine." Children are canny and always know better and it’s impossible for them to put up the false fronts of an adult can’t bring herself any other solutions. Children often live life in isolation and deal with their pain on their own. They don’t understand why others expect them on a "happy face" never mind acknowledging dead fish in a glass bowl.

There is a deceptive effortlessness to his poetry where many readers are oblivious to his irony demonstrating little patience for the lives of the downtrodden. Others are disturbed because it seems unfinished. Bukowski writes about the seamy underbelly of life. Strip off the pretty paper and there lays the reality of drinking, fighting, sadness and plain old living your life to the fullest. Embracing his human foibles he offers no excuses.

Born in Andernach, Germany on August 16, 1920 Charles Bukowski and his family arrived in the United States by the time he was three years old. Growing up in poverty he drifted through Los Angeles for most of his life eventually making his home in San Pedro. A writer since childhood Bukowski had published his first story by the age of twenty four, and began publishing poetry when he was thirty-five. His style exhibits a tough sense of immediacy. Because of his rejection of standard formal structure, Bukowski is commonly thought of honorary beat earning him a place as “the Grand Old Man of the fringe presses...” His career spanned half a century bringing him a celebrity status where he appeared with Allen Ginsberg, did interviews in Rolling Stone, played to sold-out readings in Europe and a movie of his earlier, Barfly life.

Produced by Francis Ford Coppola Barfly launched Bukowski into the mainstream media. “Bukowski wrote the screenplay and was somewhat involved in the production of this film,” adds Michael_Mccullough, “which featured Mickey O'Rourke in the role of Chinaski/Bukowski. The great love of Bukowski's life, Jane Cooney Baker, was a widowed alcoholic 11 years his senior with an immense beer belly. She served as the model for “Wanda” in the 1987… film Barfly. (O)riginally called The Rats of Thirst. In his novel, Hollywood, Bukowski refers to the movie … as The Dance of Jim Beam.”

Influenced by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, John Fante’s Ask the Dust the early Hemmingway writings, Ezra Pound and James Thurber. On short stories Bukowski said, “I do not believe in writing a short story unless it crawls out of the walls. I watch the walls daily but very little happens.” (Letter to Ann Bauman, May 21, 1962, in Screams from the Balcony, 1993).

By 1994 Charles Bukowski was 73 and struggling with leukemia. He died on March 9th at the age of 73. Buddhist monks performed the funeral and his epitaph reads, “Don’t Try.”


Backwash - Content - Twisted Coil of Misfiring Synapses:

Charles Bukowski - Bio and Links:

Drowning in a Sea of Booze: 100 Things You Didn't Know About Bukowski:

The Night Torn Mad with Footsteps: New Poems:

September 2001, Black Sparrow Press

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.