"Business" is the third poem of a suite of five poems in Victor Hernández Cruz's 1973 collection, Mainland. Other poems in the suite include "Atmosphere," "Memory," "Love," and "Music." Like the other poems, "Business" relays the sayings of Don Arturo, a wise man who offers parables and cryptic "messages" on universal topics, although unlike the other poems, "Business" is longer, consisting of 34 short, clipped lines of free verse. The poem tells the story of a street vendor and musician who sold puppets and played guitar and was regularly arrested for doing so. Don Arturo relates how detectives and clerks loved the puppet show the man put on during his court appearance and bought puppets and whistles from him. When the judge responds to the detectives' and clerks' enthusiasm for the "criminal's" entertainment with indignance, the musician says that his business is "monkey business." Cruz tells a similar story about Don Arturo, apparently a real person and friend, in his essay "Don Arturo: A Story of Migration."
The subject of the poem is business, and its central theme the conflict between institutionalized ideas of business, as represented by the state, and personal ideas of business, as represented by the musician. Cruz suggests that institutionalized notions of business are impersonal, humorless, and destructive, whereas business rooted in human connection and contact is emotionally satisfying and life-affirming.
The fact that the police and clerks fell in love with the musician's puppet show also suggests that institutionalized business, regulated by licenses, taxes, and the like, is out of step with what most people want and need. Cruz represents the musician as a trickster figure who manages to usurp authority by understanding human beings' desire to be free. The parable-like quality of the anecdote and the fact that it is related in a straightforward and simple manner by someone who speaks from a position of authority not rooted in the state give this poem universal appeal. It is a poem about the triumph of the little guy.
The poem's title, "Business," like the titles of the four other poems included in the suite with "Business," alerts readers that the poem will address a universal subject. The other poems, ‘‘Atmosphere," "Love," "Music," and "Memory," are all about figuratively explaining the meaning of their titles. All of the titles are abstract nouns, that is, they are ideas more than images. As with the other poems, "Business" begins by attributing what is said to Don Arturo, a persona Cruz uses to evoke the sense of folk wisdom. The term ' 'persona'' derives from the Latin term dramatis personae and literally means the mask worn by actors in classical theater. Today persona usually refers to the character that the "I" in a lyrical or narrative poem takes on. Cruz's poem, however, is reported, rather than direct, speech. "Don" means sir, and is a title formerly attached to the last name of a Spaniard of high rank. By beginning his story with the words ‘‘There was a man,’’ Arturo signals that the anecdote belongs to the realm of myth. The musician is as much entertainer as he is businessman, and readers are meant to sympathize with him. Although the poem does have a ' 'folklorish'' quality to it, it is important to know that Cruz bases the poem on an actual man named Don Arturo, a Cuban immigrant and friend of Cruz who lives in New York City.
(The entire section is 238 words.)
Lines 6-15 Summary
By first showing the joy people experienced from the street musician's entertainment, and then
saying that he was arrested "three times a week'' for his work, Cruz underscores how the law can often work against the desires of ordinary people. Not only is the musician penalized for performing on the street, but so are the ‘‘huge crowds’’ who come to see him, as they are now deprived of his music and his toys. The Don Arturo on whom the poem is based used to play his guitar and sell his puppets outside of Gimbel's and Macy's in New York City, two of the largest department stores in two of the busiest parts of Manhattan. As with the character in the poem, Arturo was also arrested regularly.
(The entire section is 128 words.)
Lines 16-25 Summary
Humor and irony are at work in this poem. Readers don't expect a man arrested for a petty crime to even have the opportunity to perform in court. His performance is funny for two reasons: first, because it involves a puppet show, something usually associated with children and, often, silliness; second, because he performs in a courtroom, a place conventionally associated with somber and dry activity. The detectives' and court clerks' response to the performance is also humorous, as they ‘‘rolled on the floor.’’ It is ironic that these people bought puppets and whistles from the man because they are part of the very system that is prosecuting him for selling them. The detectives and court clerks are linked to the crowds that came to see the man perform in shopping areas in that they also belong to the working class. By buying puppets and responding to him the way they do the detectives and clerks show their allegiance to the values of the working class. They demonstrate that although they work for the state, they are not its puppets who blindly behave as they are directed.
(The entire section is 189 words.)
Lines 25-34 Summary
The judge functions here as a symbol of institutional authority. His anger is the humorless anger of the state responding to something it does not condone nor understand. It is significant that the word "business," the poem's title, is uttered for the first time by the judge. When he asks ‘‘What kind of business is this[?],’’ he is using a rhetorical question, that is, a question which does not expect an answer and is more like a statement. The musician, symbolically representing the ‘‘little man,’’ continues his irreverent behavior when he answers, ‘‘I am the monkey man / and the / Monkey man sells / Monkey business.’’ These last lines provide the moral, or the message, of Don Arturo's story:
Government may work to keep the little man in his place but in time the little man will win out.
The idea of business in its various guises is suggested in a number of ways in the poem. On a concrete and practical level, the musician is engaged in business, playing his guitar and selling his puppets and whistles to make a living. This kind of business conflicts with the business of the state, which is to regulate trading activity. By breaking the law and actively disrespecting the authority of the state, the musician engages in ‘‘monkey business.’’ The musician's attitude at the end of the poem is that what he does is nobody's business but his own.
(The entire section is 237 words.)