CSULA Department of English | Statement 2004

They Say the Angle of Obliquity is Lessening

Barri Clark

       Quilts are in the news. 
The AIDS Quilt has traveled from Maine to Mexico and
there’s a large exhibit of American Quilts at a local museum. 
Besides keeping the body warm, quilts make nice decorative
wall hangings.  Quilts
are used to tell histories. 

good for journeys and protection.

     I have a jacket made of various shapes sewn together. 
It is reversible and has pockets on both sides and an
entrance on the back through which it can be folded thus
converting into a large, bulky shoulder bag.

     In my job I’m constantly being interrupted, either by
someone walking in, the telephone or by a sudden call to a
meeting.   No
sooner do I start to get into something than I have to redirect my
mind to something else.  Now
they want me to carry a cell phone.  Everybody’s on call but what we need are more than
patches of peace.

     I took my ninety-three year old mother to her Las Artistas
Luncheon and Quilting Demonstration.  The demonstrator passed around a box of chocolates. 
We were each to take one, examine it and tell what
attracted us to the one selected.  She said we could eat them later. 
It’s very hard to stay on the surface with chocolate.  I know what I like and don’t like. 
I like dark chocolate and marzipan: I don’t like caramel.  But both are rectangular and unless I can decipher the
swirly hieroglyph on top there’s a good chance I’ll get

     I’ve never mastered the skill. 
But to be honest, I never thought it important.  Now I’m beginning to wonder. 
In the world I knew, pieces fit together.  It never worried me. 
apparently there’s another world where the stitches come apart
all the time.

     So one evening while repairing the seams of my quilt
jacket, I thought I’d sail the See’s and try to crack the
chocolate code.  I had
a box on the coffee table beside my sewing things, the inside of
the lid like a map available for easy reference.  You know, the cipher key. 
For company and additional mental stimulation I had clicked
on the television.  A
series of Public Television programs paraded by.  There was one on Emmett Till and another about Bayard

     I was ten when Emmett Till, a Chicago boy was brutally
murdered for whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi.

               Mississippi is an Algonquian word

               Akin to Ojibwa

               It means big river.

     Emmett Till’s mother was stalwart. 
Although his face was beaten unrecognizable, she identified
the body by his father’s ring.  This gave the defense an idea. 
They would claim it was all a charade, proposing that the
NAACP found an imposter body and placed the ring on his finger. 
Emmett Till’s father, a soldier who died overseas during
World War II gave his life for his country.  All that came back from Europe was the ring.

     My father was in the army but he never wore a ring. 
He didn’t give his life for his country.

The name Chicago comes from a Native American word

Meaning place of skunk smells or powerful.

     Are you noticing the naming? 
I’ll bet the only truly American name is Azusa, which
stands for A to Z in the USA.  Including Alaska from the Aleut, A-la-as-ka meaning “the
great country” and Hawaii, from Hawaeki meaning “homeland”
the so-called United States of America is like a great quilted
tapestry.  Come to
think of it, that applies to the earth entirely, bodies of water
and landmasses in between.

     Emmett Till’s mother insisted on an open casket so
everyone would see what the white men had done to her son.

     I was re-stitching the seams of my quilted cotton jacket,
reconnecting the blue to the purple.  On the other side I had stitched the rose to the green. 
It’s reversible or did I already say that?  The jacket has two hip pockets and two breast pockets on
each side.  The breast
pockets are rectangular.  Each
hip pocket is made of three partially overlapping panels.  There are many stitches and many threads and over time many
had broken.

     J. Edgar Hoover had a fat dossier on Bayard
Rustin.  The FBI had even recorded his beautiful singing voice. 
He was black, he was handsome, he was articulate.  He was a Quaker, had been a Communist. 
He was gay.  Two
of his long time lovers spoke about him – how they met.  Bayard Rustin was one of the organizers of the Civil Rights

     We’ve been having demonstrations again, just like during
the Civil Right Movement and the Vietnamese War.  Apparently the Vietnamese say “The American War”
whether in English, Vietnamese or French I don’t know.  But it’s not reversible. 
What I mean is, for us it was over there.  For them it was right here. 
When you look from the other side of the mirror the image
is not just reversed: like passing through The Looking Glass it is
transformed into a world of absences and negatives, fields of red
and brown where spaces of green once were.

     As I mentioned, the back of this jacket bears a panel,
which makes one large pocket into which the jacket can be folded
satchel-like.  What is
the value?  I mean, if
the weather is hot, if you’re marching, you can tie the jacket
around your waist by the sleeves.  If you are climbing a mountain you can fold it up and hook
it over your shoulder. But it might dangle dangerously.  On second thought if you were to fall and you fell on it,
you might be saved.  No.  I still think it’s of no benefit, until proven otherwise
of course.

     It was Kalahala’s birthday. 
She lived in Santa Monica: no ocean view: inland on Twenty
Sixth Street.

     Around 8:00 p.m. the sky was still light with rose but was
swiftly purpling and we were walking east.  There was one star. 
had eaten at Remi’s Restaurant on the Third Street Promenade. 
It’s no longer there: don’t look for it.  We were walking back to her place along Broadway, which was
a somewhat industrial street, mostly offices, no night – life to
speak of.  It was a

     We were walking without obliquity.

     We once walked from Hollywood to the ocean and back, about
22 miles.  It took nine
hours.  The idea was to
see if we could walk the marathon or survive an evacuation.  We stopped for a hamburger at Zucky’s. 
It’s no longer there, either, but the graffiti-laden
boarded windows are.

got the word from Mark Twain.  It means a deviation from moral rectitude or sound
thinking, an obscure or confusing statement.  There’s a lot of obliquity around these days. 
It also refers to the angle between the planes of the
earth’s equator and orbit around the sun having a mean value of
approximately 23 degrees.  Actually
that was back in 1972.  Apparently
this angle has been diminishing.  I wonder if that’s something to be concerned about.

     I like to travel light, no back or fanny pack, no purse,
nothing visible, just my little brown leather coin purse for
carrying things.  It
can hold my i.d., a credit card and some quarters.  I also often carry a small book, in case I get caught in a
line somewhere or a double helix.

     Did you know that the total DNA in your body could stretch
from here to the moon three thousand times?  I heard it on PBS so it must be true. 
Also, did you know that DNA has proven through markers on
the Y chromosome in the male that the diaspora of the human race
began with the Lisongo Bushman of Namibia about 50,000 years ago? 
Also PBS.  And
did you know that through the mitochondria of the female, we’re
all related?  Some of
you did know.  Knowledge
changes things.

     Kala and I were just crossing an alley around 17th
street when a car suddenly stopped and two guys jumped out and
started running at us.  They
came right up to us and paired off as if to tango but instead
“Gimme your purse” was the dance they did.

     “I’ve got a gun,” one said, pointing his left coat
pocket at me.

     I was wearing the aforementioned jacket and started patting
my hips with both hands to find the aforementioned little brown
leather coin purse.  I
could feel it under my right hand but when I went into my
three-paneled pocket I soon realized it must be on the reverse
side as I couldn’t actually grasp it.

     “Come on bitch, gimme your purse.”

     His right hand was held palm upward, fingers curling at me. 
Peripherally, I saw Kala slide the shoulder strap of her
bag over her head, but I was staring at the gun.  Instead of a round rim, I distinctly saw a tiny pointed
impression.  I queried

     “You say you have a gun?”

     He didn’t answer, but asked with alarm,

     “You have a

     I was trying to be patient. 
But even as I spoke I questioned my own perversity.  Did I really care? 
was simply making conversation while trying to comply with his
request.  Almost
absent-mindedly I replied, “No.  You have the gun.”

     It was a matter of concavity. 
There was none.  Even
a bottle cap from a liquid paper jar would have made a better
barrel impression.  It
was becoming obvious that I was staring at a finger.  I also became aware that my bladder sphincter had opened
and warm liquid was coursing down my leg.

     Kala’s guy with her purse in hand tuned in and being a
keen judge of obliquity and master of  decision-making, held up his trophy. 
We got one.

     “Let’s go.”

   They ran back to the car.

     After a minute of stunned and somewhat soaking silence, we
continued walking.  No,
we didn’t get the license number or even a good description of
the car.  It could have
been a gold Chevy circa 1972, who knows.  In two days, Kala got her purse back from a security guard
who found it in a dumpster.  Only
the cash was missing.  That
I hadn’t relinquished my small fortune of quarters I had only my
complicated quilted jacket with the multiple pockets, reversible,
to thank and while it always reminds me of that confusing
experience and how I so unexpectedly peed in my pants, I also
recall how it’s layers and yes, it’s own intrinsic confusion
served a purpose beyond imagining.

     Once I found a cell phone lying on the pavement by the
curb.  It must have
fallen out of a car.  Set
on vibrate, it went off in my pocket.  The owner was calling.

you have my phone?”

I do.”

     It’s all a swirly hieroglyph to me.

     Two thousand generations ago ten or twenty people walked
out of Africa.  No map,
no cell phone.  And
they say the angle of obliquity is lessening.