pauli

born anna pauline / baltimore
november 1910 / no
language for it then / in
the gumbo of black slaves / white slave
owners / american natives
juniper irish and black folks
night sky free / mama died / i was

three / papa taught / caught typhoid
encephalitis / went nucking
futs from illness / loss / strain of six
children thrust him into
the hospital for negro insane
white guard baseball bat beat him
to death / i was sent to durham

raised by schoolteacher aunts
even then my body didn’t
match my soul / black female orphan
left-handed / shy / tall / bold / sixteen
i raced to new york
married my worst
mistake annulled / graduated

hunter college / unlike some
family / i couldn’t pass for
white / short hair / wore pants / cross-dressed / crossed
lines / crossed tracks / hopped trains / my boyish
female body / call me pauli
my love for peggie unexplained
we broke up / i broke down

my secrets pressed to my chest
passed as a teenaged boy / sat
in at counters / refused to move
to the back of the bus / jailed like
ghandi / read marx / walked picket lines
pumped signs / joined the communists
partied for a while / open

about my love for women
at howard / i / the only girl 
had to be the best / spoke from back
of the room / graduated first
in the class / fought segregation
sexism / jim crow / jane crow  
jew crow / felt myself a man

in a woman’s body / challenged
separate and unequal / but when
a black sharecropper who killed
a white man in self-defense was
electric chaired
despite all efforts / i plunged
into despair / taught in ghana

for a year / aspired to law
denied at harvard due to sex
north carolina denied me
due to race / my masters in law
earned at berkley / my j d
at yale / black woman / multiple
degrees / i / pauli stood for

civil women’s workers’ human
rights / had no vocabulary
for pain shushed / the man i silenced
inside my woman’s body sought
refuge in academe / pushed for
african american
studies / womens’ studies / served  

at benedict / brandeis / struggled
with what’s now called sexual
identity / gender
identity / i called it
inverted sex instinct / melted
down after a girl disappeared
inpatient / dark testament

internal warfare / i’ve been
retro fit as transgender
male / fraught with biological
determinism / black female
latent heterosexual
male / i wanted monogamous
marriage to a woman

no marriage rights then / no they
them / their / no social movements / no
communities uprising
against dominant norms / nothing / no
idiom / no slanguage / no shibboleth / no
queer rights / i accepted others
but notmyself as lesbian / no

words for / grasp of / grip on
gender dysphoria / gender
conflict / gender assignment
despair / no collective conscious-
ness / no voice / power / legal
protections / i wrestled / constrained
fought / capacious / fire-walked / dreamed

thought / wrote / taught / stood
in each space militated for 
people all people my people
interracial interfaith
intersex intersectional
i planted seeds of freedom / trees
beneath whose branches i would

never sit / trees in whose shade
i could never rest / trees
whose fruit i would never eat / i
sowed seeds whose harvest i hope you
reap / i prepared a place for all
who came after me though i walked
alone

when my renee
died / i entered seminary
was ordained an episcopal
priest / celebrated eucharist
preached my first sermon at chapel
of the cross i bear a burden
with which i reckoned / my cross 

a gift with which i reconciled
my body my mind my soul
my work as feminist organizer poet
writer lawyer scholar theorist
minister to
the sick to forward
visions of social change

toward a society that’s
humane / that values authentic
selfhood / recognizes human
worth / i / pauli / was no saint / but
i didn’t let grass grow under
my feet / march on / though gone
my heart / my work / my love remain

Risë Kevalshar Collins is a writer working toward a third degree—this one in creative writing—at Boise State University, where she also served on the editorial staff of Idaho Review. Risë earned an MSW with emphases in clinical and political social work at University of Houston and served as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Texas, Oregon, Washington State and in North Idaho. She holds a BFA in Drama from Carnegie-Mellon University and was a member of the original Broadway production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf by Notzake Shange. Risë’s play, Incandescent Tones, has been produced Off-Broadway and in repertory theatre. Her op-ed essays have been published in the Idaho Statesman, The Blue Review, Boise Weekly and Arbiter. Recently, she was featured on the Idaho PBS online series “The 180.” Her creative nonfiction was selected as a finalist for North American Review’s Terry Tempest Williams Prize. Risë’s creative nonfiction is featured in the Spring 2021 Emerging Writers Issue of Michigan Quarterly Review and her fiction will appear in North American Review. In addition to appearing in The Indianapolis Review, Risë’s poetry is forthcoming in The Minnesota Review.

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