Get Your Premium Membership

Speaker, Subject, and Theme in Audre Lorde's "Hanging Fire"

by Ngoc Nguyen

“Hanging Fire”
by Audre Lorde


I am fourteen

and my skin has betrayed me

the boy I cannot live without

still sucks his thumb

in secret

how come my knees are

always so ashy

what if I die

before morning

and momma's in the bedroom

with the door closed.


I have to learn how to dance

in time for the next party

my room is too small for me

suppose I die before graduation

they will sing sad melodies

but finally

tell the truth about me

There is nothing I want to do

and too much

that has to be done

and momma's in the bedroom

with the door closed.


Nobody even stops to think

about my side of it

I should have been on Math Team

my marks were better than his

why do I have to be

the one

wearing braces

I have nothing to wear tomorrow

will I live long enough

to grow up

and momma's in the bedroom

with the door closed.


The speaker in Audre Lorde's “Hanging Fire” is most likely—but not definitely—a fourteen year-old adolescent girl who has to endure the unavoidable onset and eruption of puberty and who ironically has already matured beyond her boyfriend or teenaged crush as a result of it, as she expresses with lament and dissatisfaction, “I am fourteen/ and my skin has betrayed me/ the boy I cannot live without/ still sucks his thumb/ in secret.” She is a teenager who expresses somewhat very melodramatically—as a great many newly-pubescent, adolescent girls might often do—fears and anxieties (about dying prematurely), bewilderment, and dissatisfaction with her changing body; and feelings of being neglected by a mother who is either indifferent or unavailable to be there for her during her teenaged angst and concerns: “how come my knees are/ always so ashy/ what if I die/ before morning/ and momma's in the bedroom/ with the door closed.” She is also an adolescent, teenaged girl who suddenly finds all the effects, paraphernalia, and accouterments of elementary and middle-school childhood woefully inadequate and ill-equipped to becoming a young woman, as well as now outdated and therefore unsuitable for her—as expressed and bemoaned by her in her complaints against her outgrown room and clothes, respectively: “my room is too small for me”; and, “I have nothing to wear tomorrow.” Of course, she is a teenager and youth who fails to realize—in the just-previous sentence—that nothing about her home environment or her life has really changed except the fact that it is she who is changing as a consequence of normal puberty and hormones. However, what is regarded and perceived as not normal by the speaker (and by many other adolescents and teenagers going through puberty) is that these changes are all embarrassingly and bewilderingly overwhelming and unfamiliar, as if her body and feelings, emotions, thoughts, needs, identity, and self-image are suddenly strange and alien to her in ways unlike ever before.

The subject and theme of this poem—which are closely connected and inter-dependent (on one another)—are about the emotional and psychological feelings, anxieties, and angst over pubescence and adolescence when faced with the condition of neglect and lack of guidance from a parent who is emotionally absent from her daughter's developmental changes and milestones. Because of these changes and milestones (which the speaker goes through alone without her mother's support or nurture), she has fears and anxieties of not surviving long enough into adulthood, as in the following lines (taken from three different places in the text of the poem): “what if I die before morning?”; “suppose I die before graduation?”; and, “will I live long enough to grow up?” In less dramatic ways, she expresses insecurity and emotional tension at attending a dance party, wearing braces, and experiencing ennui, boredom, listlessness, weariness, and dissatisfaction at being caught and unwillingly suspended between the poles of having no desire for activity and of having too much to do, as in all of the following lines, respectively: “I have to learn how to dance/ in time for the next party”; “why do I have to be/ the one/ wearing braces?”; and, “[there] is nothing I want to do/ and too much/ that has to be done.” Sadly—and melodramatically—the adolescent speaker feels that if her fears of premature physical death were to realize before her high school graduation, that her peers and others “will sing sad melodies/ but finally/ tell the truth about me,” that not one of them will know her real self—her real thoughts, feelings, concerns, fears, hopes, desires, dreams, ambitions, and aspirations—until ironically they find themselves at her wake looking over and admiring her cosmetically picture-perfect, made-up, well-coiffed, and well-dressed corpse displayed on a bier lying in a newly-made, ribbon-lined, padded wooden casket. Because “[nobody] even stops to think/ about my side of it,” she feels relegated and abandoned to her adolescent, funereal fantasies (of finally finding confirmation and validation—by her peers—only upon her untimely and premature demise). Which is also typical of young adolescents: the sense that one is both the center of one's universe, and misunderstood—or ignored—by everyone else.

During all of this adolescent and teenaged existential angst and anxiety the speaker's mother is strangely absent, as “[and] momma's in the bedroom/ with the door closed” all throughout the poem. No reason—either clearly expressed or alluded to—is given for the mother's absence and lack of guidance and nurture in the speaker's adolescence. There are possible—although conjectural—reasons why the speaker's mother is not there for her. Perhaps she suffers from substance abuse issues—such as alcoholism or drug addiction? Perhaps she even suffers from a mental health disorder, like clinical depression; bipolar disorder; schizoid-affective disorder; or schizophrenia? Or perhaps she and the speaker's absent and unmentioned father are in the throes of a bitter, emotionally-draining and exhausting divorce proceeding? Or perhaps again she simply slaves for sixty-or-more-hour weeks at two-or-more different and demanding jobs to pay the bills, put food on the table, and make rent or mortgage payments every month and thus cannot find the time or energy to properly raise a daughter because the divorce from the speaker's non-existent father drains and exhausts what little finances the mother has left—finances that could otherwise be used for relocating to a new apartment or housing where a larger room can be provided for an adolescent speaker whose “room is too small for me” and who has “nothing to wear tomorrow” possibly because getting her fitted with much-needed braces wiped out their very meager savings account. Any of these possible scenarios can explain why the speaker's mother is absent from her later childhood and unavailable to support and guide her as a parent into her threshold into young womanhood. As to why Audre Lorde left this aspect of the poem so unclear is any reader's guess or supposition. However, a few reasons can be offered. One, to maintain the brevity—and therefore impact—of the poem and its subject and theme. Two, to squarely and narrowly focus and concentrate the poem on the speaker in question—that is, on an adolescent's fears and anxieties as a sexually-maturing individual leaving childhood for young womanhood—and not on the mother. And three—which follows sequentially from reason two—any reason for why the speaker's mother fails to support and guide her during her adolescence is essentially another poem (for another time): which therefore would apply to the speaker's situation (in this poem) only tangentially and in passing—and hence necessitates no mentioning or addressing at all in such a case.

Lastly, the poem's title is an idiom taken from military history and custom, as the literal meaning describes time or moments—the delay, as it were—between the lighting of a cannon fuse and the actual discharge of the cannon. The idiom itself connotes the idea of a transition or intermediate period or position between two definite loci or points, in other words, a sort of limbo or purgatory in between two places (by metaphorical extension). In this light, the speaker of this poem is in a developmental “limbo” or “purgatory” between childhood and adulthood: she is, so to speak, fearfully and anxiously holding her breath between these two places in life (while left alone by her mother to cope with and address her adolescence all on her own), suspended between the two polar opposites (of human existence)—with only a single line of thread to bring her safely and successfully from one side to the other, which is in essence the several or so years of sexual individuation and maturation that finally leads to full adulthood. In this sense as well, the speaker might see and feel herself to be a “prisoner” held in confinement between two spaces, as a captive detained in a holding cell between two larger cages or arenas of a coliseum (of life and existence). In this overall perspective therefore, the speaker in this poem uncomfortably—and reluctantly—finds herself in the “holding cell” of life between the two arenas of a childhood of innocence and the adulthood of experience.