Fred Voss

Fred Voss

Fred Voss, a machinist for 35 years, has had three collections of poetry published by Bloodaxe Books, and two by Culture Matters: The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand, and Robots Have No Bones.

A Machinery Handbook Will Never Solve This Problem
Thursday, 08 February 2024 15:52

A Machinery Handbook Will Never Solve This Problem

Published in Poetry

A Machinery Handbook Will Never Solve This Problem

by Fred Voss

A machinist is hired and rolls his rollaway toolbox
down the machine shop aisle and parks it beside a workbench and steps up
to a machine
10 or 20 feet away from another machinist
at another machine
at first
the machinists enjoy comparing each other’s tools and work histories and talking
about each other’s jobs at steel heat-treating foundries where they saw thermometers reach
700 degrees
or worked on parts for space shuttles
or made lenses so surgeons could do angiograms
as they compare how level each other’s milling machine table is
and talk about thousandth-of-an-inch tolerances on blueprints
mutually admiring
each other’s expertise with indicators and inside micrometers and lapping compound
but it’s not long
before they find out one is an ardent supporter of Trump
while the other
thinks he should be put in prison for life
one burned his draft card in protest of the Vietnam War
while the other was a Vietnam War Marine veteran who fell in love with the smell
of napalm
it’s like some arranged royal marriage between different countries
where the bride and groom
have no choice
and nothing in common
both machinists needing the job and loving their machine
and the steel and brass and aluminum they cut
so expertly
both with a 1,500-page Machinery Handbook atop their toolbox
but one a fundamentalist Christian who believes Man’s sins will cause the world to end
in 12 years
while the other hopes he can make enough money as a machinist to someday run a whorehouse
in El Salvador
one with a beloved brother who’s a homosexual cop in San Francisco
the other a homophobe who steals company tools whenever he can
one who believes he was hypnotized and taken aboard a flying saucer and given a physical exam
by a beautiful female alien doctor
the other adamant that people who believe in UFOs
should be put in mental hospitals
maybe if the machinists are lucky they will find they both love
The Doors
or rock collecting or doing yoga in the park every Sunday morning
maybe they can admire each other’s photos
of their cute grandchildren
but it will never be enough
to stop them cursing
the way job ads can bring strangers together
for life.

Halley's Comet Burning Over Mark Twain's Head
Monday, 08 January 2024 16:28

Halley's Comet Burning Over Mark Twain's Head

Published in Poetry

Halley's Comet Burning Over Mark Twain's Head

by Fred Voss

I didn’t have to go to war in Italy like Ernest Hemingway
I just walked into a Los Angeles steel mill and picked up a cutting torch
and found my battlefield
between tin walls
with men
who gave their lives to machines that could chew off their fingers
and never got
a medal of honour
men who couldn’t stop shaking in their fingers and jaws
from 20 years of 2-ton drop hammer blasts
in their face and ears
but never wore
a purple heart
or got an article about them in any newspaper
men
fighting a war against steel bar and blast furnace flame and brutal boss
with whiskey in their thermoses and steel toes
in their boots
I didn’t have to go to sea like Melville
to meet my Queequeg
from a Polynesian island with tattoos all over his skin and a harpoon
sharper than a Sandy Koufax
fastball
there was Gus
from a San Quentin cell who could lay down a weld bead
smooth and fiery straight as the path
of Halley’s Comet
burning over Mark Twain’s head
Gus’s touch with his welding rod
magic as Jackson Pollock’s brush dripping coloured paint
all over a famous canvas
but unknown
as any bum on midnight skid row
my war heroes
men
with graveyard shift steel dust laughs of gritty survival that rang out off tin walls true
as Marlon Brando On the Waterfront muscle or Charlie Chaplin little tramp grin
men like shadows
caste by a blast furnace flame
against a blank
tin wall
when they should have been the faces of human triumph
on flags
waved 'round the world.

Timeclock Mount Everest
Friday, 01 December 2023 11:28

Timeclock Mount Everest

Published in Poetry

Timeclock Mount Everest

by Fred Voss

All our lives we’ve made it to the timeclock
KA-CHUNK
went the old-style factory clock when it stamped the old-style timecard we dropped into it
or “enter”
flashed the new-style timeclock when we clicked its mouse
either way
we threaded through 18-wheeler trucks full of ball bearings
or Chinese restaurant noodles
on L.A. freeways to get to a timeclock
no medal of honor
or purple heart for bravery or injury on the battlefield
no basketball championship ring or boxing championship belt
or photo of record-breaking marlin we’d pulled
out of the sea
was ours
just getting to work
by 6:00 or 7:00 am
every day for years
as cynical workers with spotty attendance records smirked
and called us “workaholics” or “working fools”
“Perfect Attendance”
the Mount Everest we climbed
as other men shot pool and sipped Pina Coladas in bars
or made love to beautiful women in motels by the sea
and called in sick
heroes
to grandchildren we put through Princeton or LA Trade Tech
the supervisor could even put us on the graveyard shift
and we’d still make it in on the dot at midnight
to drop in our timecard or click the mouse and try to stay awake standing up at our machine
there
and on time again to pick up a wrench under some tin roof
steady
as tide true
as Einstein equation determined
as salmon swimming upstream to spawn
we patched our tires changed our sparkplugs checked our oil
in our old peeled-paint cars
and made it on in
to stride up to a timeclock no matter how many of our bones ached
and say, “I’m here!”
when someone asked how we were
let other people get their faces on the covers of magazines in grocery stores
we’d stared down a timeclock
for 20 or 30 years and never let it say
we were late
and no medal was needed to tell us
we were the rock
of this world.

Trying To Go Home
Thursday, 26 October 2023 12:49

Trying To Go Home

Published in Poetry

Trying To Go Home

by Fred Voss

“I’ve got a Bridgeport milling machine in my garage”
a machinist would say
and another machinist would nod
and say he had a Le Blonde engine lathe in his garage
as they dreamed
of the day when they could have an engine lathe and milling machine and surface grinder
and air compressor in their garage and make their own parts to sell and be
their own boss
no longer
have to look in the paper to find jobs in machine shops owned by strangers
no longer
be ruled by a clock as they dropped a timecard into another man’s timeclock
at 6 am
they could wait
until the slant of the sun’s rays through their bedroom window
or the sound of foghorns on the sea
or the crows cawing on telephone lines
felt just right
deep in their bones
then slip
into a leather apron and step
into their own garage
where their father’s antique standing orange radio from 1939 sits
and hope the radio station broadcasts a Dodger baseball doubleheader
like the ones their father used to listen to
no longer
would they have to stare at blank tin machine shop walls
or listen to a foreman’s screams but look
at their own photos of the Yosemite Valley in the spring tacked to their garage walls
as they make ribbons of steel spiral off steel round stock clamped in the jaws of their own engine lathe
“All I need is an air compressor and a surface grinder
and I’ve got my own machine shop in my garage,” a machinist would say
as he dreamed of the day he could stare out his garage window
at the tree
his father planted in 1952
instead of the graveyard or the bowling ball factory across the street from the factory he works in
tread
the garage floor his father and maybe his grandfather walked
remembering the tricycle he once pedalled around the street corner
outside his garage window as an old man from Norway in a 3-piece suit dropped chocolate candy
into his palm
instead of having to thread through 18-wheeler trucks on L.A. freeways
driving to a strange city
where a boss’s scream can get
so loud
a man can barely remember
he had a father
at all.

Stone Age Jimi Hendrix
Wednesday, 13 September 2023 09:58

Stone Age Jimi Hendrix

Published in Poetry

A message from Fred: Here is my latest poem, I'm reading it this Saturday 16th September at Page Against the Machine, a democratic socialist left-wing bookstore on 4th St. in Long Beach, California. It's a post-Labor Day reading - unions are on the upswing here right now after all these years of us workers being shafted.

Stone Age Jimi Hendrix

by Fred Voss

The supervisors have it harder than us machinists
they sit
in stale air-conditioned air at desks in bullpens with windows looking out at a shop floor
with a hundred machines they never touch
their minds strapped to profit margins
the New York Stock Exchange
phones about to ring with urgent customer calls from Spain or Japan
we machinists
breathe the air blowing in from snow-capped San Gabriel mountains
or high deserts abloom with orange poppies
our hands on machine handles
ready to make a water faucet so a schoolgirl can cool herself on a summer day
playing hopscotch at recess in the sun
or a brass knurled volume control knob so the next Jimi Hendrix
can revolutionize guitar playing and start a second summer of love
or gears for a windmill that will turn Atlantic Ocean wind into electricity
and save the planet
our hands
are ready to grapple alligators
save a baby from a hotel fire
make an immortal Watts Tower out of bottlecaps and broken bits of glass
reach out and balance
a surfboard we ride on a 12-foot wave as girls in bikinis cheer
turn a racecar wheel with razor-sharp reflexes that could win the Indianapolis 500
but when supervisors
step out of their offices to walk down the aisles between our machines
they carry clipboards close to their sides pretending they are footballs
they once ran with in a High School football game 35 years ago
or ball their fists up like they could take us in a fight
even though they are so soft from sitting in cushy swivel chairs all day
we know they couldn’t
as we sing opera arias or Jalisco Mexico Banda songs
full blast out of our lungs so they echo off the tin ceiling and laugh
and spit sunflower seeds 20 feet over our engine lathes
so they make a pile on the concrete floor
just to remind the supervisors of all the things we can do
that they can’t
as we smile sympathetically at them
knowing it can’t be easy to tap a plastic computer mouse with an index finger all day
while we
flex hands
that carved the first wheel
out of stone.

Whippoorwills and Welding Rods
Tuesday, 25 July 2023 07:19

Whippoorwills and Welding Rods

Published in Poetry

Whippoorwills and Welding Rods

by Fred Voss

When I first started in a machine shop
I didn’t even know how t use a file
“Didn’t anyone teach you how to use a file Fred?”
the foreman from Texas
asked me
when he saw me push a flat file back and forth like a scrub brush
across the sharp corner on a block of steel
instead of leaning into the file and pushing it forward with each stroke
I hadn’t lifted a hammer since I was a kid in my Dad’s garage
I could recite Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy
follow Sir Gawain into the medieval English woods looking for The Green Knight
write a dissertation
dissecting T.S. Eliot’s poetic imagery
but the calibration marks on the barrel of a micrometer
were a foreign country
the danger
and the laughter in a steel-cutter’s eye another
language
and the foreman rotated his fists in the air like a boxer
as he walked between our machines
according to some law of the Texas streets that wasn’t
in any book
and my mother’s hopes of a PhD in English literature for me went up in smoke
with the floor-quaking smash of a 2-ton drop hammer
and the twinkle in the eye of the Texas foreman yodeling
the lyrics of a Hank Williams song
about the loneliness of train whistles
and whippoorwills
beautiful as Shakespeare
and ex-cons picking up welding rods to learn a way to never go back
to prison
and my feet in steel-toed boots planted on the same earth
where Abraham Lincoln split logs with a heart
that freed the slaves
my brothers on this steel mill shop floor
didn’t have college degrees
just fingers
to hand roses to beautiful women who loved men
with muscle
and hearts that won battles with blast furnace flames
and stinky 1-ton steel bars
and I leaned into that flat file and pushed it forward again and again
smoothing the sharp edges on that block of 4130 steel
and smiled at that foreman
as if Walt Whitman were about to leave his open road and throw open that steel mill tin door
and stride in to ask
for a job.

dark night welder welding royalty free thumbnail

 

 

May Day poem: Looking For My Brother
Sunday, 30 April 2023 15:31

May Day poem: Looking For My Brother

Published in Poetry

Looking For My Brother

by Fred Voss

When I stepped into the steel mill the first time it felt good
to hold
onto the handles of the cutting torch machine
the steel sparker
I squeezed between my thumb and fingers to make the spark
to light the torch
the knobs on the red tank of gas and the green tank of oxygen
I turned to mix the gas and oxygen until the torch flame roared
like an orange dragon
dropped out of English literature PhD school disowned by my mother
the summer of love Age of Aquarius Woodstock days
over for good Morrison Hendrix Joplin cold
in their graves
the only woman I’d ever had 7 years gone
I threw my arms around a 1-ton 20-foot-long bar of steel and hugged it
like Ishmael
holding onto Queequeg’s coffin
held onto a timecard and dropped it into a timeclock and tried
to make a new life
instead of strolling across the spacious rolling green university lawns
I walked on grease-blackened floor heaving beneath me like a concrete sea
about to swallow me
the pounding of the 2-ton drop hammers the beating heart
of a beast made of welding rods and drill presses and beeping forklifts and red-hot sparks
I hung on
to those cutting torch machine handles
and the sizzling of the steel bars melted by my flame
and instead of professors
there were men in knee-high rubber boots walking across machine beds flooded
with green coolant and 30-year steel mill veterans with eyes fierce
as tigers and fingers gnarled
as heavyweight boxers
I held on
to my new life
strange to me as Montezuma’s headdress
to Cortez
or Armstrong’s first step
across the cratered moon
there was no going back
to Shakespeare and chalkboards and white shirts
and I grabbed those cutting torch machine handles and hung on
and gazed across the steel mill floor into a punch press operator’s eyes
looking for the brother
I’d never had.

Beer Foam Resurrection and The Job I Don't Get Paid For: two poems by Fred Voss
Tuesday, 11 April 2023 09:06

Beer Foam Resurrection and The Job I Don't Get Paid For: two poems by Fred Voss

Published in Poetry

The Job I Don't Get Paid For

by Fred Voss

The machine shop manager
is taking the new-hire around the shop showing him the machines
and their operators
“This is Fred,” he says
as the new-hire shakes my hand
“Fred is the quietest guy in the shop
He just does his job
He doesn’t get involved in all that DRAMA!”
and I smile
as the new-hire and I show each other how strong our grips are
then end our handshake
and the manager leads the new-hire down the aisle toward a 2-ton drop hammer operator
in a straw hat
well, it’s true
every man on these machines would agree I’m the quietest guy in the shop
I don’t walk up to people
and ask them if they believe in God
or Trump
or sex-change operations or dual exhaust or a man getting close to his pet tarantula
I don’t gossip about long or short dongs or bad toupees
or karate blackbelts with little man complexes
I don’t take advantage of a man being a captive audience on the next machine
by talking his ears off or have fun by provoking men into losing their tempers
by needling their weak spots all day
but inside
as I turn machine handles and tighten steel clamps and wipe coolant and grease
off my hands with a green shop rag
I am putting all the drama
on these pages
working 2 jobs at once
one I get paid for
and one that may let me live on
when my bones lie underground
I don’t think the manager would mind too much
if he read the bit of drama on this page
I hear on weekends he plays a squeezebox
in a mariachi band in a gazebo
on Cesar Chavez Avenue in East L.A.
after all
a man cannot live by bread
and machines
alone.

Beer Foam Resurrection

by Fred Voss

On Friday mornings
we machinists filing in through the tin door to punch in
and pick up a wrench smile and say,
“Happy Friday!”
to each other instead of
“Good morning!”
because the last day of the workweek when we are finally set free
for the weekend
is truly good
no matter whether the sun is shining or the sky is full of rain and lightning
but on every other Friday
the Friday when we get paid
we yell,
“It’s GOOD FRIDAY!”
to each other and smile extra big smiles when we file through the door
because when we are set free at the end of that day Friday
we will have a paycheck in our pocket
Good Friday
may mean the day Christ died and redeemed all our sins
by rising again on the third day
to the church-going machinists in our shop
but even the most pious Christian in the shop
with stinking black grease and razor-sharp steel chips all over his hands
must have some doubt deep in his heart about Christ really rising
from the dead and saving us all
in this age of machines and science
and as he stands at his machine with his bones sore from 50 or 60 hours of work
the paycheck in a machinist’s pocket as he gets to finally walk out the tin door
makes it a true Good Friday
true as nuts and bolts
and hammer blows loud as gunshots screaming spines
and steel harder than rock carved down to micrometer-measured
thousandth-of-an-inch blueprint specification true
as heart attack or Marilyn Monroe’s legs or the first foam blown off a beer
in a Good Friday evening bar
and instead of a cross or a picture of Jesus taped to our toolboxes most of us machinists
have a red or blue star
penned into the squares on our calendars marking payday Good Fridays
when we wash the stink of the oil and grease of this all-too-real world off our hands
and stride out the tin door
in our religion
of rebirth
hooting and whooping and back-slapping and grinning
as we climb into our cars or onto our motorcycles
having earned our resurrection
with 10,000 grunts and a million aches
as our hearts fill with a joy
that is truly
holy.

Punches Full of Peace and Phones Full of Tomorrows: Two poems by Fred Voss
Saturday, 11 February 2023 08:25

Punches Full of Peace and Phones Full of Tomorrows: Two poems by Fred Voss

Published in Poetry

Punches Full of Peace

by Fred Voss

Fist-knocks
have replaced handshakes
in this machine shop
instead of squeezing palms we hold out fists
and bump knuckles in the air
between us
I guess it is a way to say we are ready to fight
but won’t
our knuckles
that could break teeth wanting only
to squeeze wrenches
hold granddaughters
rub
across the drawers of our toolboxes full of decades of machinist skill
keeping a roof
over our head
we know
there is always the chance a man
going through a divorce
an eviction
a memory of the cries of the man he had to kill in Vietnam
or Iraq
will find his guts gripped so hard inside him by fear and rage he can’t stop his fist
from busting the jaw of the man
at the next machine
and cracking his own life
in two
and so
we come in each morning and knock fists and smile and say,
“Good morning!”
like we have won a great victory
we pass each other in the aisles and knock fists
smoothly as the turning of the gears of our machines
putting sons
through college
saving daughters
from cancer
our fathers may have shaken hands
but that was when good union jobs bought them houses with 2-car garages
and no one knew
the polar icecaps could melt
as Trump tried to steal the presidency
and so
we throw slow-motion punches that end in knuckle taps
instead of punches
and grin
turning to our machines gripping hammers
like they hold together
the world.

Phones Full of Tomorrows

by Fred Voss

Gregory
has heard that the Vice Presidents and President in the office are unhappy
with the new lathe operators
“They’re only putting out 80% production
They’re looking at their smart phones all the time,” Gregory says to me
the new lathe operators are all young
brothers
or friends from the same East L.A. neighborhood
wear the same type hoodies
walk the same talk the same cut their goatees the same
laugh and knock fists and sing happy birthday
to each other and blow out birthday cake candles as their lathes sit idle and talk
about inflation and skyrocketing rents making it hard to survive
in L.A. and stare at their smart phones
I hope
on their phones they are reading about how to save
the rainforests and melting polar ice shelves and how baristas
and warehousemen and teachers and delivery truck drivers are forming unions to keep roofs
over their heads
I hope they don’t let their lathes sit idle
because they are lazy
but because they know
butterflies are disappearing and lions
may soon no longer roar at the stars and trees
are more important than car races
and skyscrapers
and a birthday cake candle sometimes worth more
than a billionaire’s Cadillac
I hope their phones show them a world full of people
with one heartbeat
one moon
one sun
one cry at birth and tear over gravestone and miracle
of rose and waterfall and Mona Lisa smile
I hope someday they can make their lathe chucks spin and turn down parts
for windmills
full of clean energy for their grandchildren
and the company vice presidents and presidents understand it is okay for workers to slow down
if it means trees
can grow taller
“Don’t worry,”
I want to tell Gregory
“It’s okay if those young guys
take their hands off their machine handles for a while
if they can pick up phones
that show us the way
to a better life.”

NO! and Alarm Clock Soldiers: Two poems by Fred Voss
Saturday, 12 November 2022 16:59

NO! and Alarm Clock Soldiers: Two poems by Fred Voss

Published in Poetry

NO!!

by Fred Voss

Laid off
from a big aerospace company at the tail end of 1980
after Ronald Reagan had been elected president
still trying to learn the trade of being a machinist
I needed a job badly
and I found one on night shift
Conrad
was the name of the foreman
and he had a big sticker saying, “NO!!” in huge red letters
pasted to the inside of his toolbox lid like it was his religion
as he frowned and fumed constantly pushing the men to work faster
as the machines screamed and the old air compressors roared rattling the tin walls
and one night
I looked up and saw a very young Mexican machinist crying
and picking up his tools from his workbench and putting them back
into his toolbox
“He fired me!
Goddamned Conrad fired me!” he wailed
through his tears like a little boy
“Goddamned Conrad fired me!
I’ll never be able to get another job!
I only have 6 months machinist experience
I’m only just learning
Goddamned Conrad fired me
Working here’s my only machinist experience
and now I can’t even mention it
What will I say I’ve been doing the last 6 months?
I’ll never get another job
Goddamned Conrad fired me!”
he was having a nervous breakdown
as Conrad fumed and stalked the machine shop telling everyone
how incompetent and hopeless he was
the next night all the machinists laughed at me
because one of them had fooled me into taking a Styrofoam cup he’d given me
to get him some solvent and the solvent had eaten
through the bottom of the cup and poured all over the floor at my feet
and a week later I made a mistake and scrapped out some parts
and Conrad screamed at me,
“Do you even know how to read a blueprint?!”
like I’d never been in a machine shop in my life
and fired me
one week before Christmas

the Reagan era had begun.

Alarm Clock Soldiers

by Fred Voss

We are the ones who never stop
holding wrenches
and wives
closing thumbs around hammers
and arms
around grandchildren
steel dust and foremen screams
in the air we breathe
oil can
and beer can in our fist
motorcycle roar and screw machine rattle in our ear we are the ones who never stop
following freeway white lines
to timeclocks
climbing onto buses to Vegas poker tables and forklifts
to boxcars stacked with 1-ton steel bars
we never stop showing up for work
the next minute the next hour the next year
reliable
as heartbeat and breath and anthill tunnel and meat cleaver edge and Halley’s Comet
steady as the crawling of the shadows of the craters on the moon
we are the ones who never stop
squeezing the jaws of calipers
holding blueprint dimensions on aircraft parts we send to parts inspectors grim and silent
as the Last Judgement
half a thousandth of an inch hole diameters
the dragon we must slay
boredom
big as King Kong the monster we must battle
each tick of the timeclock another drop
of Chinese water torture dripping
onto our skulls we are the ones who never stop
being there
on time
bending down over blueprints with dimensions absolute
as God
we are the ones who learn how to laugh
or die
humble
as dust and empty tunnels and dinosaur fossils
we somehow go on
like the river and the bear and the cactus flower under the broiling sun
solid
as the turning of the earth and the glowing of the Milky Way
and an alarm clock’s
inevitable
5 am ring.

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