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.

Searching for each other's souls
Thursday, 22 October 2020 10:28

Searching for each other's souls

Published in Poetry

Searching for Each Other's Souls

by Fred Voss

Working 10-hour days in this machine shop we put on our COVID-19 pandemic masks
like strangers aboard the Titanic
thrown together to strike an iceberg and live an historic
tragedy
and we stare
over the masks into each other’s eyes
safety glasses fogged up with our breath
dazed with vague suffocation
we just wanted to run our machines
bend our elbows pulling on wrenches
say good morning
talk about the weather and stay
to ourselves
like we have all our lives in these shops as the time clock ticks
and the gears turn and the Colorado River carves the Grand Canyon
another 16th of an inch deeper
into the earth
and we stare over the masks into each other’s puzzled
lonely eyes as another ledge
of ice falls off the melting polar icecap and another species of butterfly disappears forever
in the Amazon basin
and Trump looks into his mirror making sure each orange hair on his head
is perfect
and the basketball and baseball games grind to a halt like never before and we
begin talking about the state of the earth
instead of who won the game
we can almost feel the earth turning under our feet
the page in the history book
we could fill
if we poured into the street
protesting
as we look over our masks and stare into each other’s eyes
now
man drops out of the trees and learns to walk erect now
Christ hanging on the cross shakes the world now
we have pulled our last drop of oil out of the earth now
the trees are burning Nero
is fiddling Pandora’s Box
opening Marx puffing
on his big cigar Thoreau content in his tiny cabin in the wild woods
beside Walden Pond now
the hammers and the wrenches and our grandchildren’s futures
rest in the palms of our hands
as we stare over these masks deeply into each other’s eyes trying to know each other
for the first time
and find an answer
as dizzy in these masks stumbling across this concrete floor
we try to find our balance and breathe
in a new world.

Tension building here before election. Bernie's right: we've got to save our democracy. Not to mention the planet. Tired of the heat here in California and wearing the mask all day, 10 hours in the hot humid shop seems a mild but well-worth-it torture. Looking for the light at the end of the tunnel - Fred.

Pounding on the door of Kafka's Castle
Friday, 21 August 2020 09:01

Pounding on the door of Kafka's Castle

Published in Poetry

Pounding on the door of Kafka's Castle

by Fred Voss

Once we were men with opposable thumbs we grabbed
sticks and stuck them down anthills
we grabbed berries women hourglasses formulas
and mushroom clouds
we grabbed onto ideas
like balloons carrying us high above
the dirty earth
we got excited
and built churches and gallows and insane asylums and bag factories
we grabbed continents
and said, “The sky’s the limit!” and hit a golf ball across the moon but we couldn’t let go
of gods
cocaine
mirrors prejudices machine guns 24-hour news channels giant cups
of Coca Cola steering wheels
of earthmovers rolling on giant tires and knocking down
ancient mountains
we couldn’t stop
feeling more intelligent than the spider and the planet Jupiter even though
homeless women and their children were starving in an alley
outside our window
and we threw our hands up into the air and didn’t know what to do even though we could grab
microscopes and remote controls and encyclopedias as people screamed
in roller coaster cars and held
a million times more knowledge than they ever needed to know in the iphones
in their palms
as the roses opened
and the cats walked and Van Gogh painted sunflowers with a beauty
no one could really grasp
and we held our opposable thumbs up in front of our faces
and shook our heads and knew it was time
to let go
as the polar icecaps melted
and the seas clogged with plastic
time to let go
and listen to the violins
let the rocks lie in the earth laugh with a child
in a green sandbox try to unravel the mystery
of Mona Lisa’s smile follow
a John Coltrane saxophone searching for the light at the end
of civilization’s 6,000-year-old tunnel pound our fist
on the door of Kafka’s castle raise a church
to the whiteness of Moby Dick and ask the elephant
and the kettle drum and the heartbeat and the shooting star
and the man lifting the sledgehammer high above his head
why
we breathe.

There's an interesting interview with Fred Voss on the Ragbag podcast, here. Fred's latest collection, Robots Have No Bones, is available here.

Janis Joplin never belted Southern Comfort and screamed the blues
Friday, 21 August 2020 08:49

Janis Joplin never belted Southern Comfort and screamed the blues

Published in Poetry

Janis Joplin never belted Southern Comfort and screamed the blues

by Fred Voss

“We’ve got to wear these fricking masks!”
says our new supervisor
to us machinists and de-burrers and shipping clerks and punch press operators gathered
around him on the shop floor for the special coronavirus
pandemic meeting he has called
to tell us we must all wear our sanitary masks at all times
he says “fricking”
instead of “fucking”
because long since the days when he was a hippie
and said “fucking” in every other sentence
he quit drugs
and drinking and blasting iconoclastic long-haired-hippie rock music and joined
a fundamentalist Christian church
and started saying “fricking” instead of “fucking”
“fucking”
sounds earthy and solid and true and sexy and noble
as an elephant trumpeting
a steamroller rolling
a hula dancer swaying her hips under a Waikiki palm tree
Freud uncovering a repressed memory
Joe Louis landing a k.o. punch to Max Schmeling’s Nazi jaw
“fricking”
sounds like something that would make Jimi Hendrix
unplug his electric guitar
Romeo forget Juliet Harry Houdini
resign himself to handcuffs Valentino take off his tango shoes Jim Morrison
put on a hair shirt
and the supervisor finishes by telling us to all wear our masks at all times and stay
in good health and then shouts,
“Alright! Let’s all get back to fricking work!”
would Paul Bunyan
have said “fricking”
would that speeding locomotive driver Casey Jones would Jack Dempsey Pablo Picasso
Janis Joplin never belted Southern Comfort bourbon and screamed the blues
Lead Belly never split a chain-gang boulder with a sledgehammer
and we machinists and shipping clerks and de-burrers and punch press operators
file back toward our machines
as all the air goes out of all the balloons
on earth

Something like a pandemic that’s a matter of global life and death
ought to at least make men give
a fuck.

Ready to Go to Work
Monday, 06 July 2020 07:00

Ready to Go to Work

Published in Poetry

Ready to Go to Work

by Fred Voss

A machinist bites into his morning apple
as the sun rises
on his workbench before him are 1/8th to ½-inch Allen wrenches
for turning socket-head cap screws
tight
5/16th to 1-and-¼-inch crescent wrenches for turning any hex-nut
in the shop
and the apple in his mouth is sweet as its juice drips from his lips to the concrete floor
              and he knows
he can do anything with his tools
as birds chirp on a telephone wire and asteroids float in outer space
why can’t politics
be as cut and dried
as the calibration marks on his machine dials
nuclear test-ban treaties negotiated
as easily as he can indicate a vise parallel
on his machine table
parts
for ships rockets tubas fire hydrants microscopes elevators
toasters and skyscrapers can be made
on the lathes and mills and surface grinders around this machine shop
and with the morning kiss of his wife
and the photo of his granddaughter taped to the inside of his toolbox lid
the machinist strides like the black panther
stands poised
over his vise like a heron hunting
over a pool of water
a hundred meteors striking the earth one billion years ago in the block of steel
he is about to cut
the apple
that made Newton see gravity stretched to the stars
in his hand
the machinist takes his last bite of the apple
and tosses the core into a trash can and wonders
why can’t
all the children starving in this world be fed
all the homeless
standing on street corners housed all the oceans cleaned all the lights turned on
by windmills
and the machinist rolls his thumb across the worm screw in his red adjustable crescent wrench
and fits its jaws around a big hex-nut and wishes
someone would give him the blueprint
so he could make
a better world.

Today the young people are marching in the streets
Friday, 05 June 2020 08:54

Today the young people are marching in the streets

Published in Poetry

Today the young people are marching in the streets

by Fred Voss, with image by Martin Gollan

The young are marching
young as the Golden Rule
the first human eye turned toward the heavens in wonder
young as a raindrop
a hammer blow cracking the Bastille
Blake
seeing his first angel
a knee is on our neck
but the young are shouting
strong and beautiful as Louis Armstrong’s trumpet
Billie Holiday’s croon
a knee is on the neck of the black man and the brown man and the homeless man
and the homeless woman and the working man and the working woman
a knee is on the neck of freedom
but the young are marching
young as Rosa Parks’ feet planted firmly in the front of the bus
Frederick Douglass
wrestling his slave-master down to the ground
Joe Hill yelling, “Organize!”
the dawn sun burning on Walt Whitman’s open road horizon
a knee is on the neck of George Floyd and the poor
and the poem and Vincent Van Gogh with a sunflower
in his paintbrush
and this story is as old
as Bessie Smith’s blues and James Baldwin’s sad eyes and every man
without hope who ever thought
of throwing in the towel but today
the young are marching in the street
marching for the homeless man trying to sleep on a sidewalk
the man from El Salvador
cheated out of his wages as he slaves
in a downtown L.A. sweatshop factory today the young
are marching and shouting and singing young
as Martin Luther King’s dream
and the flame of the human spirit that must never
go out.

Capitalism means that I can't breathe

 

May Day Greetings from California
Thursday, 30 April 2020 09:32

May Day Greetings from California

Published in Festivals/ Events

The Steel Bones of Our Cities

by Fred Voss

The COVID-19 virus is spreading across California
and we are at our vertical milling machines
our horizontal boring mill machines
our 12-foot-long engine lathes
like we were
through 1929 stock market crash
total eclipse of the sun
Einstein overthrowing the universe
with his pen
Lindbergh back from flying across the Atlantic smiling through showers
of New York City confetti
our hands on the machine handles
our feet on the concrete floor
our eyes on the tin walls
a thousandth of an inch is still a thousandth of an inch
chips of steel still fall from the edges
of our cutting tools
carving faucet
and wheel
red-hot rivets still hammered into Golden Gate Bridge
waves throwing their arms around rocks
sailors
studying stars cats
still finding their way across cities back home to bowls
of cat food
the COVID-19 virus has the streets of our cities in its grip
we don’t blink an eye
or miss a beat
making pipe to carry water or easel
to hold canvas
a Gershwin melody is still a Gershwin melody
a falling star still a reason
to kiss as we carve
keys and wheelchair wheels and soup spoons and clown horns
out of shiny steel and brass and aluminum
a laugh is still a laugh
a marriage ring is still a marriage ring
I-beams still the steel bones
of our cities
and a steel block gripped between the steel jaws of a vise on our machine table
might still help make
a new world.

Breaking Through the Tin Walls

by Fred Voss

As our machines chew and slice and groan
through steel and aluminum and bronze
I hope
one of my fellow machinists is dreaming of a union strike
that can make an owner walk into a machine shop and really listen to men
with black machine grease on their hands and heads held high like they’ll never take a back seat
to any man
I hope
one of my fellow machinists dreams of the day when these blank tin factory walls
we’ve been hidden behind all our lives
fall
and we begin to become as famous
as pundits and tv clowns
and kings
I hope
one dreams of the day when machinists don’t have to have grip contests
wrestling each other to the concrete floor to prove
they are men
when machinists can bring bouquets of yellow daffodils into the shop
and proudly set them on their sheet metal workbenches
beside oily shop rags and not
be laughed at
or hang
a Van Gogh on a tin wall because they know Van Gogh would love to paint
our green engine lathes and sweaty faces
I dream of Buddha and Mandela and Whitman
sitting in front of machines on stools in front of us
because nirvana and freedom and beauty
have no need to wear
a white shirt
and the fall of a government can start with a machinist
laying down a micrometer
and I write these poems because Neruda’s father worked on the railroad
Jack London and Herman Melville were sailors and loved the sea
Dostoevsky hauled 150-pound loads of rocks in his arms in a Siberian prison camp
and every man who ever carved a train wheel out of steel
also needs to carve out
a dream.

Author's Note:

May Day greetings from California.

We are the ones at the machines, in the mines, at the desks,
behind the wheels, we are the ones
with the jackhammers and spatulas in our hands
we are the ones waiting for the day
we can make
a better world.

We Don't Expect Napoleon To Fill Our Glass With Courvoisier Cognac Any Time Soon
Monday, 16 March 2020 16:16

We Don't Expect Napoleon To Fill Our Glass With Courvoisier Cognac Any Time Soon

Published in Poetry

We Don't Expect Napoleon To Fill Our Glass With Courvoisier Cognac Any Time Soon

by Fred Voss

We make parts for a company that wants to send a man
to Mars
but all we need to do is leave the hard concrete floor of our machine shop
and step inside our company offices to feel like we are on
another planet
taking
a vacation request form to the lady
in the Human Resources office we are suddenly breathing
strange air-conditioned air
emails
from China or Japan or France or Spain cross oceans to arrive on computer screens
at nearly the speed of light as everywhere
the only muscles being used are fingertips
on keyboards
aliens
in white shirts walk across soft soft carpet using phoney smiles and catchphrases
never known in machine shops
as they saunter toward huge tables and plush chairs in board rooms
we’ll never enter
these office creatures might as well have 3 eyes
7 fingers E.S.P. kiss
by rubbing elbows talk with their ears walk
on the ceiling live 300 years drive with their feet
see through walls juggle 6 bowling pins at a time have a séance
with the ghost of Napoleon as he pours them
Courvoisier cognac
ring up Einstein to hear him play the violin receive radio waves
from a planet 1,000 light years away go bowling
with Mussolini listen to an organ recital
by Albert Schweitzer in the African jungle as an elephant
walks by levitating
a chair by twitching their nose
for all the chance we’d have of joining
in one of their discussions or decisions
and we take our stamped vacation request form out of the Human Resources office
and walk back out across the hard machine shop concrete floor
the ground under our feet again
blue sky outside a tin door
and breathe the fresh air blowing in from jagged mountains
so glad to be back
on planet Earth.

Process Worker, Pirelli
Thursday, 30 January 2020 18:55

Turning Slavery into Art

Published in Poetry

Turning Slavery Into Art

by Fred Voss

“This is slavery,”
Armando on the old manual milling machine says
and smiles
his ironic smile
as all the shop machinists fire up their machines and drop denim or leather aprons
around their necks as the time clock ticks
“Every day, the same, every day
here on the dot every day
doing what they say whether we like it
or not….” Armando says
his wistful eyes looking through the factory tin wall toward some distant star
on the horizon
this man pushing 60
who long ago wanted to be an astronomer but found himself starving as he tried to pay
for graduate school
and I think of mentioning Marx
and wage slaves and surplus labor and capitalist vampires sucking the life blood
out of men like him and me
the book on existential alienation I read in college
Neruda
writing poems about the American corporations working Chilean peasants to death then throwing
them away
like rotten fruit
but Armando
has already summed it all up
and I just say, “I know what you mean….”
and we nod to each other and he turns
to his machine to work on one of his incredibly creative and imaginative job setups
with 1-2-3 blocks and U-clamps and nuts and bolts and hoses and C-clamps
and trigonometric angle sine bars and 90-degree plates and machinist square
and one-thousandth-of-an-inch-accurate Jo Blocks
all arranged across his machine table in original
beautiful ways
and I tell him once again how I’d like to take a photograph
of his beautiful setup and he laughs in delight
and I walk away toward my machine long ago having dropped out of the U.C.L.A.
English literature Ph.D. school and already
writing this poem in my head
about Armando and me
2 men
who have found a way to turn their job in this machine shop
into something special
no manager in his office will ever know or understand
2 men
who could have gotten degrees and put on white shirts
turning slavery
into art.

 

Workers
Tuesday, 24 September 2019 07:43

National Poetry Day: Hammer Blow and Heartbeat

Published in Poetry

Hammer Blow and Heartbeat

by Fred Voss

I remembered how clean the church was
when I was 10
the altar where the minister poured the blood of Christ into shiny silver chalice
the calm manicured fingernails of the congregation in their spotless Sunday clothes
kneeling to God
above
now I was 23
with the oily wheels of a cutting torch machine in my hands
in a steel mill where men spat
on a concrete floor blackened by a million steps of filthy bootheels
“fuck”
“shit” “Goddamn son of a bitch” were in the air
instead of holy hymns
sunflower seeds
spat through air sour with steel dust instead of the body of Christ
in a wafer on my tongue
above us
only a smokestack belching orange and blue flames
but there was laughter
in that steel mill like I never heard in that church when I was 10
laughter that washed the soul with its joy real
as a naked body
a tiger’s growl
a volcano rumble a train wheel clacking
down a rail a sunflower
spreading its smiling gold petals over black raw earth
if there would ever really be a God it would have to be
in this steel mill
in bruised
knuckle grease-smeared cheekbone steel-toed boot grunt
and growl and sweaty back of a man putting every ounce of courage he has inside him
into shoving a ton of steel
into a roaring blast furnace mouth
not gold cufflink
clean coat and tie country club membership and pie-in-the-sky cross
God
in the black machine grease under the broken fingernails of men who are brothers
in molten steel sore back smashed finger aching bone gasping lung
groaning soul sweating skin taut muscle bellow
howl hoot holler sigh
of relief when a quit-work whistle blows after 12 hours
of timeclock hell
not in the burgundy wine we pretend
is the blood of Christ
God
not in some spotless heaven far above
but here in this steel mill
in hammer blow
and heartbeat.

Wheeling Away The Dreams
Tuesday, 23 July 2019 16:44

Wheeling Away The Dreams

Published in Poetry

Wheeling Away The Dreams

by Fred Voss

As we work at our machines at 11:16 am we hear
the siren
and look out the factory tin door and see the paramedics truck pulling up
in our company parking lot
then notice
Octavio is missing from his machine
Octavio
6’3” tall 220 pounds of 31-year-old muscle Octavio
who can make heaving a 100-pound tool steel vise or lathe chuck
look easy
“Is it Octavio?”
we are asking
each other until Ramon comes over to tell us he saw the paramedics
wheel Octavio out on a gurney
and drive away
and 27-year-old lathe man Eduardo blinks his eyes looking out the tin door and says,
“A lot of people are stressed out…
having anxiety attacks…
you can have an anxiety attack so bad you might
be having a heart attack….”
and we think of Trump
and his threats to deport Mexicans and Guatemalans and Nicaraguans
and all the fear in the Mexican neighborhoods and the skyrocketing L.A. area rents
and the stalled wages and the children
with no future as their parents have to choose between a heart operation
and bankruptcy
and a big young strong man who works 60 hours a week taken out
on a gurney
because the world seems to be closing in on him
and stunned
we gradually return to our machines
but somehow the wrenches
and the hammers and the micrometers don’t feel quite the same
and we don’t want to pick them up in our fingers
as we look out that tin door
and think of Octavio
something was taken away from us
on that gurney
something that feels a lot like
the American dream.

 

 

 

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