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.

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.

 

 

 

Joe Hill Walks This Factory Floor
Sunday, 26 May 2019 19:43

Joe Hill Walks This Factory Floor

Published in Poetry

Joe Hill Walks This Factory Floor

by Fred Voss

I remember working a union shop decades ago
the way we stood
a little taller
walked by a supervisor with our chin and chest stuck out
a little further
we owned the concrete floor
grabbed the handles to our machines because we wanted to
not because we had to
we were one
set of thumbs one grip of fist one heave of steel block
into vise bolted to machine table
one rivulet of sweat
trickling down the hollow of a steel cutter’s back on a hot summer day
Joe Hill
the union leader still alive 104 years after they buried him
full of bullets
Pete Seeger
still playing his banjo at 92 years of age marching on braces over the Brooklyn Bridge
with all those New York Occupiers so young and full of dreams
beside him
and I look across this machine shop at Chris 75 years old still wrestling
a 100-pound vise on and off a machine table
working into old age because he doesn’t make enough to save a dime
Fyodor
hunched over his oily turret lathe not knowing where he’ll get the money to pay
for his heart operation
Ismael lifting a 400-pound die onto his machine with a crane and living in his car
Hugo the 20-years-skilled arc welder
unable to buy a house for his family though he can lay down a weld bead beautiful
as a Van Gogh sunflower
somewhere deep in their hearts and their sinews and the blood surging through their veins they know
they are brothers
each
the thing that sets the sun to rise
the mother
to hold the child to her breast and smile
the eagle to spread its wings and soar like it is holding up
the sky
together strong
as the waves crushing stone
into sand the stars
guiding all the ships home
through the storm
together
waiting for the unions
to rise again.

 

Another kind of beauty
Sunday, 24 February 2019 19:58

Another kind of beauty

Published in Poetry

Another kind of beauty

by Fred Voss

The young woman
stands at the Bridgeport mill
in the cold machine shop morning air she has pulled the hood of her jacket over
her head
baggy work pants and shirt big work boots cover
her body
only her face and hands stick out for us men machinists to see and they
are beautiful
but the razor-sharp cutter fits her hands
the cutter holder
in the machine spindle fits her palm as her fingers wrap around an Allen wrench
and tighten the holder’s locknut
onto the cutter with all the muscle
in her arm and back
and she is not here for us to see her shapely body
or shiny long black beautiful hair
she is Rosa Parks firmly planting her black feet in the front of the bus
Norma Rae
defying the bosses standing up on her textile factory workbench holding the “UNION” sign
high above her head
for all the workers to see
Spartacus
leading the slave rebellion Emma Goldman
leading the suffragettes King
leading the freedom march out of Selma because we are all
human beings
unbeaten unbroken
her smile
unstoppable as the sunlight breaking through
a storm cloud
her hands
turning machine handles like she was born to turn them
the young woman is inevitable
as the Grand Canyon revolutionary
as Galileo’s telescope beautiful
as Madam Curie accepting
the Nobel Prize and every dream that ever
came true.

A hammer ringing out like a Beethoven trumpet
Monday, 17 December 2018 11:28

A hammer ringing out like a Beethoven trumpet

Published in Poetry

A hammer ringing out like a Beethoven trumpet

by Fred Voss

The new young machinist is in love
with the steel block
he holds his machinist tool square up against it and lifts
the block with all the muscle in his arms up against
the light
streaming through a high machine shop window and sees he has cut the block perfectly
square
and smiles
he’s had 6 months L.A. tech trade school and a year and a half on the job training
in this shop
and he knows how to use a micrometer and hold a blueprint dimension and shave
a bronze block until it shines diamond-bright and at 24 years of age he feels he has the world
in the palm of his hand
and I look over at him
I’m 66 and I’ve been at this machinist trade for over 40 years now
been laid off 7 times
fired 4
collected years-worth of unemployment sitting in a kitchen chair looking out at an alley wondering if I would soon live there
I’ve set my toolbox on a workbench so many times and thought
I’d found a home
only to see the company move to Arizona or Mexico
or have an owner cut my wages in half because he took a seminar
with Donald Trump
on how to squeeze work out of men
like water from a stone
I’ve had supervisors scream in my face
like I was a dog
been put on graveyard shift where I fell asleep on my feet in front
of a machine
seen the trail of blood across a concrete floor following a man who has just cut off
his finger
it isn’t all a hammer striking a bar of brass until that hammer rings out like a Beethoven trumpet
it isn’t all the beads of sweat on your back true
as sparkling stars
or the laughter of men who have thrown their bodies against wrenches all week slapping
each other’s shoulders as paychecks fall into their hands
and I see the new young machinist holding the block of steel up against the square
in the light and smiling
and hold my tongue and don’t tell him what I know
if only it were simple
as a square block and heart and muscle and 2+2=4
if only it were beautiful
as the leap of the tiger and the sharpness of the saw-tooth mountain peak
against the dawn-red sun
if only we didn’t live in a world
made by Capital.

 

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