"Hanging Fire" wastes no time getting started. These first two lines of the poem tell us a whole lot about our speaker. First, she's 14-years-old. Second, her skin "has betrayed her."
So, what does it mean for your skin to betray you? Well, let's go ahead and make an educated guess that our speaker is complaining about pimples. Yes, pimples, those nasty little buggers that have the power to ruin our days (and sometimes, it feels like, our whole lives).
Pimples are a sign of our bodies running the show, doing whatever the heck they want to do. In other word, "betray[ing]" us.
There's also a possible racial context of this line. Lorde was African-American, and perhaps her speaker is too.
In which case, the line may refer not just to pimples, but to racial difference. Let's keep an eye out for this idea going forward.
Though these first two lines are short, they really set the tone for the poem. After reading them, we know that our speaker is 14, and that she's got some issues, and that she's the type of person who is gonna share her problems. She's not bottling anything up in this poem.
But whether or not the issues will be typical teenager stuff, or more serious type stuff, we don't quite know… yet.
the boy I cannot live without still sucks his thumb in secret how come my knees are always so ashy what if I die before morning
If the speaker seemed a little complain-y to you in the first lines of the poem, well, hold on to yer horses; there's more complaining ahead.
In these lines, the speaker tells us that there's a boy who she "cannot live without." Ah, young love—so joyous and carefree.
Or is it? This "boy" "still sucks his thumb / in secret." It sounds like this young dude's got some issues. And is he the speaker's boyfriend? Someone she's got a mad crush on? We don't quite know; the speaker doesn't tell us everything here.
In the next few lines, the speaker starts up with her complaining, though this time around, she definitely seems less whiny, and more curious.
She asks: how come her knees are ashy? (Ashy = dry, in case you didn't already know.) This is a pretty low-stakes question, in our humble opinion.
But then she asks a much deeper question: What if [she] dies before morning? What will happen to her? It's a pretty morbid thought, and with much higher stakes than her last question about her knees.
Notice that these questions don't actually end in question marks in the poem. It's like she's not even expecting an answer to them. It's starting to feel like the speaker is talking to herself, rather than talking to a big audience.
Back to the content of the questions: our speaker sure is jumping around a lot. How does one get from ashy knees to death? Do we have a really morbid 14-year-old on our hands here, or is this a pretty accurate representation of the way young teenagers think? What say you? Let's read on to see if we get any answers…
and momma's in the bedroom with the door closed.
No more complaining and-or questioning for now. Here, the speaker tells us some straight-up facts: Her mom is in the bedroom. The door is closed.
Got it. But why does she tell us this? We don't know quite yet. However, it is clear that the speaker's mom is not answering her questions if she's in the bedroom with the door closed. The speaker is separated from her mom with a literal barrier. These family members are isolated from one another.
Note that the speaker refers to her mom as "momma," not as "mom" or "mother." Her use of the word "momma" makes her sound a little young, don't you think?
Form note: in terms of rhyme and rhythm, we're sensing… yeah, no patterns at all to speak of. But that's not to say there isn't a plan in place. Check out "Form and Meter" for more.