Audre Lorde’s “Hanging Fire” is a nostalgic reminder for women of a time when they were young, having so many thoughts and feelings; some that should have mattered but didn’t, some that shouldn’t have mattered but did. Within this reflective shell, however, are deeper and darker feelings of isolation and fear that are especially expressed in the profound repeated statement, “momma’s in the bedroom with the door closed” (10-11, 22-23, 34-35). It is debatable whether this statement is intended to be taken literally or figuratively, but that is the beauty of such ambiguous imagery as it allows us, as readers, to put our own experiences into it while the poem becomes what we need it to be.
Shortly after I married into a Christian family I learned that there are three kinds of Christians: those who take the bible literally, those who take it figuratively, and those who take it to be a little of both. “Which kind of Christian are you?” the preacher asked the crowd and me invisible within it. He put a tone to the latter two choices so that we all knew which to choose. Most seemed grateful for an easy out. I was left in anguish; never being able to accept things at face value, I could not just conform. It was a pivotal moment in my life and one I come back to often. When I fought through all the rough patches in my life. When I chose to step out of my practical box and pursue an English degree. Each time I write. Each time I read. Today I bring it with me when I explore this poem.
After reading this poem and hanging on the repeated regard to the absence of a young girl’s mother, I had to ask myself, what kind of reader am I? Right away, I chose to take this poem literally. I went back to a day when I was this girl. I remembered my loneliness and my eagerness to fill the void with best friends and boyfriends, none satisfactory in the end. Just as there is no father mentioned in the poem, there was none in my life. As her mother resided in a closed bedroom, mine did too; her escape from a life she didn’t want, I presumed, from a child she didn’t want. I remembered trying to lead a “normal” life, hiding the outward appearance of fear and loneliness, stuffing them down each morning and moving on with daily life as the narrator does when she allows herself to think about bad skin, braces, and the Math team. I took the statement literally because it was literal to me, and then the rest of the poem fell into place.
Upon further examination, however, I realized that though Lorde’s repeated statement paints a clear picture for me, much like the one I already hold in my mind, it can also be taken figuratively to explain the complicated feelings that are expressed throughout the entire poem; from the frustration of having ashy knees to a nagging fear of death. This girl faces all the traditional teenage girl crises in addition to the emotional plaque that has built up in her life due to her mother’s absence. I imagine, as it happened in my life, what it is like for this very normal girl to face it alone with no one to listen to her, encourage her, or lead her. Her isolation eventually brought on doubts and fears that built up inside her. With no one to relieve the pressure, they spun out of control. Now she begins to wonder about death and fear it. No child should worry about such things on a regular basis, but the repeated mentioning of her death, “what if I die before morning…suppose I die before graduation…will I live long enough to grow up,” shows that this is no passing thought (8-9, 15, 32-33). Just as she constantly reminds us that she is alone, she continuously reminds us that she is afraid to die.
Now with both a literal and figurative interpretation of the phrase regarding her mother, my eyes are opened to an underlying tone of not only a fear of death, but the transition of fear, to anticipation, to longing for death. I see it in the title, “Hanging Fire,” which implies an expectation for something and I see it in the statement:
Suppose I die before graduation
They will sing sad melodies
Tell the truth about me (15-18)
This statement shows more than fear. It shows that the narrator considers death a real possibility. In my experience, believing in something and dwelling on it can very well lead to eventually longing for it.
If Audre Lorde read this poem to me, she might set a tone to it revealing her intentions and whether we should assume there really was a mother in the bedroom with the door closed, or if it is just an expression to explain the girl’s feelings of isolation and fear. I am grateful, however, that there is no tone to guide me, because without it, I am free, as a reader, to bring my own feelings and experiences to it. My appreciation of this poem is enhanced and I am able to understand it on a deeper level because I can read it as if it were my story.
Lorde, Audrey. “Hanging Fire.” Literature and Its Writers: A Compact Introduction to Fiction,
Poetry, and Drama. 4th ed. Ed. Ann Charters and Samuel Charters. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007