Essays and Criticism

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1403

Victor Hernández Cruz's poem "Business" is the third poem in a suite of poems in his collection entitled Mainland. The other poems in the suite are "Atmosphere," "Love," "Memory," and ‘‘Music.’’ All of these poems are both descriptive and didactic, that is, they both portray and instruct. This makes sense for a book which takes as its theme life in the United States from the perspective of someone who was born on the small island of Puerto Rico. As a group, then, these poems can be seen as a primer meant to educate readers on what to keep and think about when making the move to the Mainland. As a poem, "Business'' includes within it ideas and themes addressed in the other suite poems. An examination of these poems first will provide the groundwork for an analysis of "Business."

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Before looking at the poems, however, it is necessary to consider the poems' speakers, for these are poems within poems. Cruz as the poet ‘‘reports" the words of a man named Don Arturo. Each poem begins ‘‘Don Arturo says’’; Don Arturo is both a "type'' of person and a real person, whom Cruz has written about before. As a type, he personifies the wise man who has lived a full and adventurous life and now dispenses advice about his experience so that others can learn from him. The real Don
Arturo, the one about whom Cruz has written, is an elderly Cuban émigré with whom Cruz shares wine while listening to his adventures and pronouncements. In ‘‘Don Arturo: A Story of Migration,’’ which appears in Cruz's collection Red Beans, Cruz describes Arturo in 1981: ‘‘Now 78, he still cultivates his famous corner in the Village [i.e., Greenwich Village in New York City, a famous bohemian neighborhood] come spring and summer. He savors memory like espresso coffee. He calls up his beautiful moments with women like an encyclopedia, though his memory sometimes scatters. The details he gives shine like light bulbs and make bridges with each other.’’

That the poems all begin "Don Arturo says'' is significant because these poems carry the power of speech, of being passed down orally. Such a means of cultural transmission tells us that these poems circulate in a close-knit community which has a strong sense of cultural identity. All of them also espouse individualism and the idea that one must live in the present and the present must be seized. They suggest that passion is a greater good than reason, which can often squelch human capacity for joy. There are certain things about living on the Mainland that one needs to understand in order to survive. In both "Atmosphere" and "Memory" Don Arturo tells readers ‘‘You have to know.’’ What is it, however, that readers must know? Here is ‘‘Atmosphere’’:

Don Arturo says: You have to know what the atmosphere is creating You have to know Because if it's good You can go somewhere and make your own.

This small poem underscores the importance of self-awareness, and how the environment contributes to what one feels. It also highlights the capacity that human beings have to make their own way in the world, to create an atmosphere they can live in. Don Arturo's advice on "Memory" also points to the importance of self-awareness, this time in relation to words.

Don Arturo says: You have to know what you once said /Becauseit could travel in the air for years / And return in different clothes / And then you have to buy it.

The message here? Choose your words carefully because they could come back to bite you. Much of what Don Arturo offers in the way of advice is standard fare; that is, most of us, whether we are from Puerto Rico, Missouri, or China have heard this kind of advice in some form or another. What makes these poems different is precisely their form. Although the two poems above are straightforward and relatively easy to "decode,'' his poems on love and music are not. In "Love," for example, Cruz
uses surrealist imagery to describe how the emotion can sometimes cripple our ability to think clearly.

Don Arturo says: If you put your hands in all the time / Some day it will fly away with your mind.

Consistent with his advice to be self-aware, "Love'' both warns of the danger of falling in love (too often) while also (seemingly) celebrating the euphoria of such an emotion. "Music'' is similarly contradictory in its message:

Don Arturo says: There's supposed to be more sauce than fish / It suppose to be like riding on a horse or stepping out of the room / Without a single motion.

Readers are told what music should be like, suggesting that they might be experiencing it differently. Music, according to the speaker, should be an almost out-of-body experience, where the dancer and the dance become one. Rather than leading to an unawareness of one's environment, something that Arturo cautioned against in "Atmosphere," such mind-body unity allows the dancer to live fully in the present, in harmony with the surroundings. Music plays an integral role in Puerto Rican culture and in Cruz's poetry in general. It is no surprise that the central character in the longest Don Arturo poem,"Business,'' is a busker. He makes his living selling puppets and whistles and playing his guitar on the city streets. Unfortunately, the law does not condone the entertainer's business, arresting him regularly for what readers can only assume would be not having a license. In court, the same detectives who arrested him were won over by the man's performance and bought toys from him. When this happened

The judge got angry and yelled: What kind of business is this / And the man said I am the monkey man and the / Monkey man sells Monkey business.

The ‘‘monkey man’’ responds as he does because he is appalled by the atmosphere in which he finds himself and so, as Arturo advises, he creates his own. The law in this case hampers the man from enjoying his life and from giving joy to others. "Monkey'' is used both symbolically and ironically here. Monkeys are mischievous animals, and ‘‘monkey business’’ suggests that the man does what comes naturally to him, as a monkey. But mischief is closely aligned to play, to a sense of living in the moment unencumbered by the petty requirements of governmental bureaucracy. Symbolically monkeys signify a prior unconscious part of humanity and are often linked to sorcerers and magic in folklore. The magic of this monkey man is his capacity to seduce others with his music and his puppets, to make them forget about their surroundings and to experience the joy of music and play. The phrase can also be read as ironic. That is, the musician doesn't really think of himself as a monkey man, but he is merely continuing to flout the law by responding to the judge in this (disrespectful) manner. The ambiguity of this poem's ending points to the lesson that Don Arturo wants readers to understand: be alive to the possibilities of the moment, and don't be beaten down by the system.

The business of "Business," then, is the work of the individual to stay alive in the world, a world often hostile to one's existence. It isn't mere physical survival that Don Arturo wants to teach readers about but emotional survival as well: the capacity to do what one loves best and to make a living at it, regardless of obstacles. The real Don Arturo, Cruz tells us, is also a survivor. After ingratiating himself to a minister and winning a place as a guitarist in the minister's band, Arturo seduced the minister's wife. Then, after tiring of the band, he became a street musician and vendor, selling toys and putting on puppet shows. The ‘‘monkey man’’ that Arturo describes in his story is Arturo himself. Cruz has fashioned a set of poems out of his experience with the actual Don Arturo; in this way, his poem can be seen as belonging to the genre of creative nonfic-tion, a label usually assigned to lyrical prose. This ingenious way of making poetry shows that Cruz, as a poet and storyteller, is also a survivor, refashioning the raw material of his own experience into both entertaining and meaningful forms.

A widely published poet, fiction writer, and critic, Semansky teaches literature and writing at Portland Community College.

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Critical Overview