Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598
A first reading of this poem about the other world inhabited by the isolated poet might tempt the reader to see it as a restatement of the Nature-Art dichotomy, a traditional theme that is perhaps best known to readers of modern poetry in “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928) by William Butler Yeats. But Ekelöf is not seeking to replace mutability with the permanence of art. Indeed, he appears to reject the idea that one can sail away by airship to a world that might be filled with “monuments of unageing intellect.” He is isolated, not because he is old or because he is a poet, but because isolation is the human condition. What he is saying in this poem is that though he is daily in close, but superficial, contact with other people, he is really totally isolated, deeply confined within his own self. Quite satisfied with his shallow relations with other people, the addressee fails to realize that he has no real self. What Ekelöf says to his reader in “Tag och skriv” (“Open it, Write”) applies equally to the friend in “If You Ask Me”:
In reality you are no one.Your suit; a place, a name—all else is merely your wish,your ‘I’ a wish, your lostness one, your savedness another:you have taken it all out in advance!
In “If You Ask Me,” breathing (or difficulty in breathing), a common theme in Ekelöf, vividly concretizes the desperate inadequacy of the atmosphere (“sphere of breath”)—that is, of reality. Merely living in this atmosphere fragments one; not only does it separate people from one another, it also keeps them from themselves. This is why he recommends the filter with which to isolate the helium that is diffused among the other components of the air. This “helium,” this “other world,” is Ekelöf’s metaphor for the self. What one can hope to find after filtering out everything that keeps people from entering this pure self is best stated in “An Outsider’s Way”:A writer’s first task is to resemble himself, to become a person. His duty, or rather, his best way of attaining this, is to acknowledge his incurable loneliness and the futility of his wandering on Earth. It is only then that he can strip away all the stage scenery, decorations, and disguises from reality. And it is only in that capacity that he can be useful to others—by placing himself in the predicaments of others—of everyone! It is futility that gives life its meaning.
This short dramatic monologue is a concise poetic restatement of that credo. It involves a paradox that, as Printz-Påhlson has pointed out, recurs in many of Ekelöf’s poems: Only in the depths of the self does one find what is common to all. Because the poet has found this kind of wholeness in his self, he urges a “filter” upon his friend. Even though the quest for wholeness involves considerable discomfort, the potential reward should encourage the reader to undertake the filtering process with equanimity. The final fillip in the poem comes when he discredits the “wise” man who blames the darkness for the fact that he can barely see the stars, traditional symbols of aspiration and of direction. Implicit in the last word in the poem, “night,” is the idea, frequently expressed in Ekelöf’s poetry, that all of the familiar polarities—day and night, good and evil, life and death, meaning and meaninglessness—are complementary concepts that only acquire meaning when considered in relation to each other.