Guide to the Other Gallery Analysis

Dana Gioia

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like many of Dana Gioia’s poems, “Guide to the Other Gallery” is highly structured and traditional. Composed of six iambic tetrameter quatrains, the poem is set as a dramatic monologue reminiscent of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” both in its form and its surface subject, a guide showing artistic possessions to a visitor. Unlike in Browning’s poem, the guide is not revealing exceptional pieces of art but the castoffs, the broken, useless, decayed, and unidentifiable objects kept in a back room for some unexplained reason, possibly because they were either useful at one time or were a part of someone’s life (and therefore memory). Whatever the reason, in this museum “Nothing is ever thrown away.” That final line of the first stanza, and indeed the entire first stanza, sets up a central question that plagues the reader throughout the poem: Why does the gallery keep these obviously broken and irreparably damaged or decayed objects?

The poem begins with the guide, as a good docent would, listing the objects and telling why each has been consigned here. The objects he enumerates include the severed marble limbs of athletes and cherubim, butterflies carefully arranged in display cases, framed portraits of unknown people by unknown artists, books crumbling on shelves, empty bottles, and locks without keys. From the manner in which he discusses the contents of the room—“These butterflies,” “These portraits,” and “Here are the...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

All the images in Gioia’s “Guide to the Other Gallery” are sight images, none particularly concrete. The “splintered marble athletes” and cherubim are undifferentiated, the butterflies unclassified, and the books untitled. Gioia’s decision to provide generic images rather than concrete ones appears intended to convey a sense of the leveling quality of time, decay, and death. His ordering of images similarly reinforces this sense. He begins his catalogue of images with the juxtaposition of the human and the divine, strength and delicacy with the broken and dismembered marble statues of the athletes and cherubim now relegated to what William Butler Yeats might have called this “foul rag-and-bone shop.” He then moves on to another item often found in museums, a collection of butterflies, ethereal in contrast to the marble substantiality of the statues, but indistinguishable from one another.

The third image is of unidentified portraits. They are, significantly, flat, two-dimensional, unable to embody the “potent soul[s]” who commissioned them, achieving a worthless measure of immortality. The shelves of books, though visual in themselves, take the imagery in a slightly different direction as their covers are not what matters, but what the “Millions of pages turning brown” contain that is really significant. From the portrayal of the human form to the butterflies (symbolic in many cultures of the soul) to the books (the symbol of human...

(The entire section is 430 words.)