The poem is really a short story about an ordinary family with tragic problems. The child of the mother and the father, who are mentioned in the poem, is the narrator. The likely scenario is that the child in the poem represents Charles Bukowski’s childhood.
In the first lines of the story, it is mentioned that the family has goldfish. We hear about a boy, whose mother keeps telling him to be happy, even though she has a miserable life because of his insane and abusive father, who beats her frequently.
One day the goldfish dies and his father, being the insensible man he is, throws the goldfish to the cat, but remarkably, Henry’s mother just smiles.
The first impression you get when you see the title of the poem is that this must be a ‘feel-good’- or ‘love’-poem. In the first line, the word ‘goldfish’ is mentioned. An innocent image most readers can relate to.
The same goes for the line “my mother, always smiling, wanting us all to be happy”. Again, to the reader this is a good thing. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Most people agree that going through life happy, is something we all try to achieve.
The fifth line reads “and she was right: it’s better to be happy if you”. Then the poet does something remarkable. The line stops after “you”, while the next line, only includes one word; “can”. Bukowski made this word a line by itself to make the reader understand the undertone of desolation in the family, because they surely cannot live the happy, picture-perfect life.
By writing it this way, Bukowski leave it to the reader to decide if the mother and the child are happy. But clearly the Mother acknowledges that the child is in fact never happy, since he “never smiles” as she remarks later.
Line 10-11, “raging inside his 6-foot-two frame because he couldn’t understand what was attacking him from within”. We know from earlier, that Bukowski’s childhood was terribly violent and his father was abusive to his mother and him, but in this poem Bukowski choose to look beyond this and tries to understand why his father was abusive. In this line, the reader senses immediately that something is wrong with the father and that he is fighting his own demons. Is it mental illness, substance abuse or is he just a man with temperament? Bukowski’s mother becomes the center of the stanza; “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?” Instead of goldfish swimming in a bowl, the goldfish now symbolize the mother (“poor fish”) who tries to show happiness even though she suffers from violence and lives in pain. However, sorrow cannot be hidden, even the child knows that her happiness is not real. As the author express it “it was the saddest smile I ever saw”.
In the last stanza the goldfish dies. The reader can clearly envision the dead fish “they floated on the water on their side, their eyes still open”. To return to the symbol of the fish being the mother, the reader’s viewpoint now gets completely turned upside down. It is not as simple as it looked – the poem is not about abuse. It is about a frazzled woman who tried to keep an even more broken family together. She believed in the good things in life and smiled through her pain in an attempt to raise a shelter towards the ugly reality she is confined to. Until one day, when the little part of her, still trying to fight, died and was thrown to the cat: By then she just stands there, still smiling. Perhaps she realizes that relief will also come to her some day; when death put an end to her miserable life and she can finally stop pretending that life is a happy place.