The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.”

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,...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 520 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.