In “Hanging Fire,” the speaker is a 14-year-old girl who displays seemingly superficial worries as well as darker underlying anxieties; even worse, she lacks the support that she needs from her mother.
The speaker is self-conscious about her appearance. She declares, “my skin has betrayed me,” indicating, perhaps, shame about acne or her skin tone or both. She also is embarrassed by her “ashy” knees and her braces. In terms of clothing, she exaggeratedly claims, “I have nothing to wear tomorrow.”
Her use of hyperbole is typical of a teenager. She expresses heightened emotions, describing the boy she has a crush on as someone she “cannot live without.” Other pangs of awkwardness and adolescent angst include her worries about learning how to dance soon enough for the “next party” and her discomfort at having outgrown a childish, “too small” room.
The speaker is obviously bright, as she “should have been on Math team.” She seems to have been cheated out of a place on the team by a male classmate whose grades were lower than hers.
Yet juxtaposed to these seemingly harmless concerns are more serious worries and existential questions. In the first stanza, right after pointing out her dry knees, she suddenly asks,
what if I die
In the final stanza, after complaining about her braces and limited wardrobe, she wonders
will I live long enough
to grow up
The young speaker reveals dark thoughts and ponders an early death. In the third stanza after complaining about a cramped room, she imagines a scenario:
suppose I die before graduation
they will sing sad melodies
tell the truth about me
Below the surface of her young-girl appearance lurks unexpected gravitas. What is “the truth” about her that people will “finally” discover? What happened to her? Is she a victim of injustice and trauma, or is she being overly dramatic?
Nobody even stops to think
about my side of it
The girl needs someone, anyone, to listen to her and hear her story. Even more disturbing is the absence of her mother. After listing her concerns in each stanza, the speaker repeats this phrase:
and momma's in the bedroom
with the door closed.
Why is the mother not paying any attention to the teenager? Is the mother angry or willfully negligent? Is the mother oblivious to her daughter’s pain? Or is the mother depressed herself, unable to leave her room and interact with the girl? In any case, the speaker cannot talk to her mother and lacks needed support and solace.