Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 699
With its focus on useless accumulation, whether of the divine or the mundane, and what that hoarding of the broken and disintegrating has to say about and to humankind, “Guide to the Other Gallery” is reminiscent of several of Gioia’s other poems, most notably “Counting the Children.” Both collected in The Gods of Winter, dedicated to the memory of Gioia’s young son, these poems emphasize the ravages that time inflicts on everyone and everything. They also highlight the inability of humans to let go of objects, perhaps even ideas or their own bodies, in the face of the loss of their function and purpose. There is also a central paradox here in that these objects, which are now relentlessly held onto, were previously discarded by someone else. The place in which they now reside is a kind of netherworld, which conveys other, even more archetypal, associations to the poem.
The descent into the underworld—this poem admittedly presents a glimpse of and not a descent into the abyss—is an integral part of epics. Having no pretensions of being an epic—indeed the “you” of the poem comes across more as an Everyman than a heroic figure—this poem nonetheless borrows from that tradition.
Although these conventions hail from at least as far back as the Greek and Roman periods, Gioia’s poem, appropriately for the work of a poet known for his translations of Italian poetry, is perhaps most evocative of Dante’s Inferno from La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802).That allusion to Dante is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the guide who brings to mind Vergil conducting Dante through the Inferno; in this case the guide does not allow his companion into the forbidden place but merely grants a glance through its portals. “I wish I were a better guide,/ There’s so much more that you should see,” he tells the visitor, and in this statement and allusion the guide connects himself to all poets and seers; he should be able to illuminate the dark more fully for everyone but feels somewhat at a loss to do so. Instead, all he is able to do is to glance over the useless objects filling the room and only point to the final holding place of the visitor, the unmarked antique case.
That the guide is of seminal importance to the poem, despite his relative ineffectualness, is clear from the title, which does not focus on the visitor or even the gallery, but the guide. Additionally, the ambiguity of the title—“a guide” as in a guidebook or sign or “the guide” as in the docent—appears deliberate as Gioia omits the article that would provide clarification, further strengthening the allusion and contrast to the much more capable guidance of Vergil.
The ineffectiveness of the guide is in keeping with the lack of usefulness of the objects of the gallery. The statues, useless fragments of the human and divine, are kept for no apparent reason and rest beside rows of butterflies. Discovered after long and often difficult searches and then carefully arranged to show their relationship as well as their differentiation, the butterflies are indistinguishable from one another, made “commonplace” by death. The portraits are of people who intended to immortalize themselves, but their vanity has led to nothing, as their names are now forgotten. Similarly, the unread books accent the pretensions of writers who felt they had something to say and may even represent the futility of all knowledge as well as of all possessions.
The final stanza, with its implication of the desire but inability of the guide to let the visitor in to discover fully the ramifications of the gallery, holds some promise as the gallery supposedly “has such a peaceful view.” However, even that promise appears to be thwarted, for when the visitor will be allowed into the room, it will be to be enclosed in an unlabeled wooden box and therefore to be unable to experience the view. In the tradition of ancient and modern poetry, “Guide to the Other Gallery” thus underscores the futility of this life while it points to the potential, possibly unrealizable, of the next.