Anxiety is the dominant emotion of the narrator in African-American poet Audre Lorde's "Hanging Fire," a poem about teenage uncertainty and longing for adult guidance. Lorde's tone, the voice that she wants readers to hear, is that of a young woman frustrated by her sense of aloneness, constriction, inaction and need for support. As the title indicates, the narrator is hanging fire; she is stuck and doesn't know what to do about her problems.
Poets can be described as dramatists writing for a particular audience. Word choice and patterns, such as repetitive elements, reinforce tone. Choice of narrator, subject, conflict and images are other tools poets may use to create the voice or tone they want a particular group of readers to hear. In Lorde's poem, the audience not only is teenagers who may be experiencing similar worries, but also adults who may not be aware of how important they are to the emotional balance of young people's lives. Balance can be especially difficult for teens who are struggling with sexual identity. Lorde, who was bisexual, often touched on homophobia in her writings, according to The Poetry Foundation.
It is likely, but not definite, that the narrator in "Hanging Fire" is a girl because the narrator refers to "the boy I cannot do without" shortly after announcing "I am fourteen." It becomes clear that the poet wants to communicate the narrator's feelings of awkwardness because the narrator feels "betrayed" by her skin. Certainly teens are familiar with feeling self-conscious about acne. However, the narrator may be referring to her skin color because she complains of "ashy" knees. She also comments on her boyfriend's immature habit of sucking his thumb. During the first stanza, the narrator juxtaposes these seemingly smaller worries with the major concerns of fearing death and having no one with whom to talk about it. The stanza concludes with the statement that the narrator's mother is "in the bedroom/with the door closed."
In the second and third stanzas, the poem's tone of anxiety is reinforced through repetition of thoughts about death. Once again, these thoughts are juxtaposed with concerns familiar to most teens such as feeling awkward about dancing and having "nothing to wear." Each of these stanzas concludes with the narrator's lament about "momma" being closed off in her bedroom, which communicates that the mother isn't available to the teen. The Poetry Foundation notes that parent-child relationships were one of the important threads in Lorde's poems and that she had a difficult relationship with her mother.
Words and Images of Worry
The second stanza refers to the narrator's need to learn how to dance before "the next party" -- but says her room is "too small for me." This thwarted movement creates a visual image that supports the poem's title about being stalled. The stanza further underlines this torpor when the narrator says, "There is nothing I want to do; and too much/that has to be done." Another image in this stanza that increases the tone of disease arises when the narrator says that others will sing "sad" songs if she dies "before graduation." She is imagining a memorial service of sorts and still can't discuss any of these fears with her mother.
Aside from the narrator's continual problem with an uncommunicative mother, the last stanza increases the poem's tone of anxiety by raising feminist conflicts. Although worried about how to dress, the narrator is also angry about failing to be chosen for her school's math team despite scoring better than one of the boys. Lorde was well known for writing about racism and sexism.