The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

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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 shelves”—the guide and visitor appear to be walking through the gallery, passing by each exhibit as he mentions it. At one point the guide even tells the visitor, “I wish I were a better guide,” adding “There’s so much more that you should see,” indicating they may be moving out of the room.

In the final stanza, though, their situation is clarified to show that the pair have merely been looking into the room. For at this moment, despite the depressing nature of the objects in the gallery, the visitor obviously asks to enter it, only to be told, “I wish you could./ This room has such a peaceful view.” Rather than allowing the guest to enter, the guide points out an unlabeled antique wooden box and astonishingly adds, “It’s for you.”

The last two stanzas of the poem interestingly, but without preparation, move from a focus on the contents of the gallery to the people surveying it, the speaker lamenting his inadequacy as a guide, sorry that he is unable to show his guest everything that should be seen, and the visitor wishing to go farther inside, but instead being shown a box—most likely a coffin—just for her, indicating that this gallery, rather than the “other gallery,” presumably the one that holds the whole, classified, and useable objects, will eventually become a holding place for the visitor, too.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

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 thought and knowledge), Gioia moves to empty bottles, useful but unfilled and thus unfulfilled, and keyless locks, conceivably as useless an object as exists. The imagery thus becomes both increasingly mundane and evocative of the futility of accumulation, vanity, knowledge, and perhaps even life itself in the face of eroding time.

This sense of time is reinforced by the meter as well as the rhyme scheme of the poem. The poem is written in extremely regular iambic tetrameter and has a rhyme scheme that varies from abab only in the first and fourth stanzas, in both of which it is abac. The insistent beat of the lines mimics not only the emotionless, monotonous patter of the guide but also, more elementally, the tick of the clock or the beat of the heart, regular and lulling, just as time itself levels, dulls, and decomposes. An additional effect of the regular meter and rhyme here is that after it leads relatively painlessly and hypnotically through the list of the contents of the room, it continues and almost slips the gravity of the association of the visitor with the artifacts past the reader, adding to the jolt of the final words, “It’s for you.”