The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

Audre Lorde’s “Hanging Fire” is a poem of thirty-five lines of free verse. The poem is divided into three stanzas with lines ranging in length from two to seven syllables. The persona, a fourteen-year-old female, uses terse, declarative sentences, speaking directly to her audience, making readers aware of her anxieties, her isolation, and her loneliness. She explains that she is in love with an immature boy who still sucks his thumb in private, that she is worried about her ashy knees and a skin that has “betrayed her,” and that she is occupied with death and dying, for she says, “what if I die before morning.” While all of these issues worry the teenager, what affects her most is the fact that her mother is unapproachable: “and mamma is in the bedroom/ with the door closed.”

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In the second stanza the teenager continues her direct address, making readers aware of her social inadequacies and allowing them to see her inner self. She indicates that she needs to improve her social skills by affirming that she has to learn how to dance, yet she states that there is nothing that she really wants to do. However, she admits that there is “too much/ that has to be done.” The ambiguous messages that are sent in these lines of needing to learn how to dance, of not really wanting to do anything, and of having too many things that need to be done indicate that the young girl lacks direction and that she truly needs the guidance of an adult, especially her mother, to help her formulate strategies that will see her through these confusing times of her life. She ends the stanza as she does the first one, bewailing the fact that she has no access to her mother, who has gone into her bedroom and has locked her daughter out.

In the third stanza the persona indicts the school system for its sexist attitudes. “I should have been on the Math Team/ my grades were higher than his,” she protests, but she is summarily dismissed as a candidate because of her sex. What seems to pain this black girl more than the dismissal is the fact that no one considers the injustice that she suffers, and no one in the school system comes to her defense or champions her cause, for she admits: “nobody even stops to think/ about my side of it.” The young girl’s preoccupation with death is revisited. This time she wonders: “will I live long enough/ to grow up.” She ends the poem by indicating that while she attempts to deal with these issues alone, her mother is still ensconced in her bedroom with the door closed.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

In several discussions Lorde explained that the poem comprising the text from which “Hanging Fire” comes, The Black Unicorn, was never anthologized during her lifetime because she saw the entire text as one entity. Although the poem under discussion is a unified whole, it should be remembered that the author intended it to be read as a part of a whole. (Works from The Black Unicorn have been anthologized since Lorde’s death.)

“Hanging Fire” is complete in and of itself; there is a marriage between form and content in this work. The titular statement suggests that the teenager’s world is aflame and is about to explode and burn, and her short, terse sentences pop from her mouth like bullets aimed at the reader, while the repetitive statement at the end of each stanza suggests that the one person who could and perhaps should be her advocate, the mother, is “in the bedroom/ with the door closed.”

Additionally, Lorde has the ability to use structure as a means of creating tension and ambiguity, resulting in several layers of meaning in the poem. For example, the first two lines of the poem state, “I am fourteen/ and my skin has betrayed me.” The teenager then goes on to tell the audience about the immature boy “she cannot live without” and the ashiness of her knees. If the word “skin” is understood both figuratively and literally, it is possible that the teenager could be referring to her sexual desires as well as to her being a female in a world dominated by males.

There is also ambiguity in the third stanza, in which the persona is discussing her not getting on the “Math Team.” The stanza begins with a simple declarative sentence: “Nobody even stops to think/ about my side of it.” The young girl explains her not being a part of the team even though her grades were higher than those of the boy who was selected. Coming at the beginning of the third stanza and prefacing the statement about not getting on the team, the statement that no one thinks about her in this matter might very well refer back to the mother at the end of the second stanza, who has withdrawn to her room, as well as to the school officials, for not being concerned about the choice they have made.

In “Hanging Fire” Lorde also has a penchant for using very little end punctuation, allowing her sentences to flow into one another. This technique is suggestive of the teenager’s anxiety and her need to express herself hurriedly. This method also allows the poet to fuse ideas. In the third stanza, for example, the teenager says: “why do I have to be the one/ wearing braces/ I have nothing to wear tomorrow.” The lack of punctuation fuses the ideas of wearing braces, which the fourteen-year-old does not want to do, and the wearing of clothes, which she would like to do. It is evident from the poet’s use of language and the structure of the poem that language and form function as a unified whole.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 125

Avi-Ram, Amitai F. “Apo Koinou in Lorde and the Moderns: Defining the Differences.” Callaloo 9 (Winter, 1986): 193-208.

Hull, Gloria T. “Living on the Line: Audre Lorde and Our Dead Behind Us.” In Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, edited by Cheryl A. Wall. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

Olson, Lester C. “Liabilities of Language: Audre Lorde Reclaiming Difference.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 84, no. 4 (November, 1998): 448-470.

Opitz, May, Katharine Oguntoye, and Dagmar Schultz, eds. Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out. Translated by Anne V. Adams. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Parker, Pat. Movement in Black: The Collected Poetry of Pat Parker. Oakland, Calif.: Diana Press, 1978.

Perreault, Jeanne. Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

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