"Hanging Fire," a poem about teenage angst by Audre Lorde, first appeared in her poetry collection The Black Unicorn in 1978. The poem has been reprinted in several literary anthologies, such as the Norton Introduction to Literature (9th edition, 2005) and the 1997 edition of The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde.
In Conversations with Audre Lorde (2004) Joan Hall reports that Lorde was a self-described "Black lesbian feminist poet warrior mother" who liked to focus on "differences" while disputing notions of universality, and the book in which "Hanging Fire" first appeared is noted for its evocation of African spirituality. Yet "Hanging Fire" is not overtly about the African American experience, and its one apparent reference to romance seems to be heterosexual. It is true that there is a feminist suggestion in the poem's closing stanza, but for the most part the poem speaks in a broad way to the anguish and anxiety of adolescent life generally; some readers even mistake the speaker for male.
The poem coincides with Lorde's usual concerns in its depiction of the speaker as a lonely, unhappy outsider and in its suggestion of a difficult mother-daughter relationship. However, its evocation of the adolescent condition has a universal quality not usually associated with Lorde, though it is this quality that no doubt accounts for the poem's inclusion in anthologies and classroom discussions.
The title "Hanging Fire," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, literally means a "delay in the explosion of the charge of a gun or of a blasting charge." Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language similarly defines the phrase to mean "to be slow in firing" and by extension to mean to be slow in anything or "to be unsettled or undecided." The notion of being unsettled certainly fits Lorde's poem, and the notion of delay may fit as well; there is a sense in the poem that the speaker is suspended, not knowing what to do. A definition of "hanging fire" from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable is somewhat different: "To fail in an expected result," derived from guns that fail to go off. This definition would make the poem seem more negative, suggesting that it is not only about being unsettled and delayed but also about failure.
The speaker announces her age (fourteen) and begins listing the problems in her life. The first concerns her skin, which she says has let her down, presumably meaning that she is suffering from acne. The speaker then refers to a boy she states she needs, presumably a boyfriend. However, this boy sucks his thumb in private--not the most appealing or socially acceptable behavior for a teenager--suggesting that the speaker feels less than desirable because she associates with someone with this undesirable trait. The speaker then returns to her skin, complaining that her knees are ashy, the one point in the poem that suggests she is African American, as "ashy" is a relatively common slang term used in the African American community to describe dry skin.
The stanza ends by moving from specific complaints to a sudden concern of the speaker's that she might die before the morning, suggesting great unhappiness. The last two lines of the stanza then refer to the speaker's mother, who has apparently shut herself away in her bedroom. This could be seen as just another problem for the speaker, but as Jerome Brooks states in his article on Lorde's poetry (in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, 1984), it seems to be more than that. These two lines end each stanza, suggesting they are especially important, and the importance would seem to be that the one person the speaker wants to turn to for help with her other problems has made herself unavailable. That is, not only does the speaker have problems but she also seems to have no one to help her with them; even the person one usually expects to be the giver of help, one's mother, is not there for her.
The second stanza plunges into additional problems. The speaker needs to learn how to dance in time for an upcoming party, and she thinks her room is too small for her to do so. In this stanza, though, after just two complaints over three lines, the speaker quickly moves to thoughts of death, more quickly than in the first stanza, where she first outlined three problems and did not introduce the motif of dying until the eighth line.
The second stanza's introduction of the fear of death is tied to graduation. Now instead of fearing death before the morning, the speaker is afraid that she will die before she graduates. The fear thus seems to be attached in this case to a feeling that she will fail to accomplish what she is supposed to do. She also appears to worry that though people will sing sad songs when she dies, they will then tell the truth about her, as if the truth is something negative.
The last part of the second stanza begins with a capitalized word, as if beginning a new sentence. This is the only time in the poem that this happens in the middle of a stanza, suggesting that the sentence is of some importance, and the sentence proves to have large implications. On the surface it is just a statement that the speaker has nothing she wants to do while at the same time she has too much she has to do. It could be a common teenager's complaint about having to do unwanted chores while at the same time feeling bored and aimless, but it seems a moment when the poem is emphasizing a more widespread human condition, about restlessness and dissatisfaction with one's goals combined with a sense of being overwhelmed by responsibilities. The second stanza then ends with the repetition of the speaker's mother being in the bedroom behind a closed door.
Whereas the second stanza moves quickly from particular complaints to a more generalized expression of despair, the third stanza begins with a general statement that no one thinks about the speaker, but then moves back to particulars: that the speaker should have been the one named to the math team because her grades were better than those of the boy who was chosen, that she is unhappy to be wearing braces, and that she has nothing to wear.
Like the previous two stanzas, the third stanza references death; the speaker wonders if she will live long enough to grow up. As in the second stanza, the implied fear is of not accomplishing goals or fulfilling one's destiny. The third stanza ends as the other two do with the chorus about the speaker's mother being closed off from her. By ending the poem with this repetitive statement, Lorde seems to reinforce the feeling of despair, reminding the reader that the speaker sees no way out or feels there is no one to help her with her many problems in her state of despair.