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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.

May Day 2021: Star-Spangled Purple Bandana General
Sunday, 25 April 2021 08:36

May Day 2021: Star-Spangled Purple Bandana General

Published in Poetry

Star-spangled Purple Bandana General

by Fred Voss

When I first stepped up to a machine after getting
my union card
I joined a ring of men and women locking hands in a circle
spanning the globe
an army
with wrenches and hammers and steel-toed shoes and hardhats and tape measures
instead of guns
an army standing so tall no CEO or supervisor
could stare us down
and when I picked up a wrench it was because I really wanted
to pick up a wrench
we were rise
of mountain beat
of eagle wing beauty
of rose inevitable as wave crossing ocean to crash
into rock true
as gravity indispensable
as sunlight
Gus
in his Greek fisherman hat and black leather jacket cranking
the handle of his bedmill and smiling
Marcella
with her star-spangled purple bandana around her forehead
and her wrapped-in-green-surgical-tape fingers scraping against her spinning buffing wheel
our generals
we were swing of miner’s pick
deep in the copper mine in Chile the clipper ship seaman
high in his crow’s nest bearing the frigid blast
of Cape Horn gale-force wind against his face the chef
over his steaming pot of clam chowder in his tall white hat the San Francisco conductor
with his fist on his stick-shift changing screeching gears on his cable car
crawling up the hill hamburger flipper
jackhammer gripper cathedral bell
ringer dynamite lighter railroad
switchman chimney sweeper crawling-under-the-foundation-of-the-house
plumber Brazilian Grand Opera singer
and Paris piano tuner
and I stood at my machine and looked out a tin door as the sun rose
over the San Gabriel mountains
as a jeweller cut a priceless diamond
and a janitor polished a train station bathroom faucet
and felt the warmth of the blood flowing in our locked hands circling the globe
our globe
our home
our brotherhood/sisterhood
lighting up our sky
of dreams.

Above image is a painting donated anonymously to the people of Salford, England in thanks to all of the city's key workers who have worked tirelessly and courageously to keep the city safe throughout the pandemic. It is a beautiful display of working-class solidarity.

We don't expect Napoleon to fill our glass with Courvoisier any time soon
Thursday, 01 April 2021 16:47

We don't expect Napoleon to fill our glass with Courvoisier any time soon

Published in Poetry

We don't expect Napoleon to fill our glass with Courvoisier 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 phony smiles and catchphrases
never known in machine shops
as they saunter toward huge tables and plush chairs in boardrooms
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 levitate
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.

The Universe Can't Stop Laughing / A Fate He Couldn't Fix
Friday, 12 March 2021 17:30

The Universe Can't Stop Laughing / A Fate He Couldn't Fix

Published in Poetry

The Universe Can't Stop Laughing

by Fred Voss

We are the steel I-beam spines
of cities
the nails holding together the house where Mark Twain lay dying under Halley’s Comet
the pawnbroker
sad
holding a dented trumpet he’s sure could have blown a note so strong
it made the sunrise brighter the polisher
of faucets full of cold water in a green-tinted train station bathroom dreaming
of his dead wife’s kiss the hand
gripping the trapeze bar 100 feet above a circus tent
dirt floor as a thousand people gasp below the fingers
of a mechanic full of lube grease that let the wheels
of a Volkswagen bus painted a hundred colors roll across the Golden Gate Bridge
during San Francisco’s summer of love
we are paintbrush
hair clippers channel-lock pliers 80-grade sandpaper
butcher’s scale table saw blade watchmaker eyeball streetcar conductor thumb
lion tamer sweat axle grease
on a cheek popcorn bag at a baseball game
chess piece in a park Hitler in a barber’s chair bolt thread
and blowtorch we are
shoemaker for mad King George chauffeur
for drunk Jim Morrison fingernail clipper for the stars stirrer
of paint eater
of fire
we raced locomotives across the American frontier like God told us to
ran out of gas halfway to Vegas
we are hubcap
and scalpel vaccine
and sword swallower toothpick factory
and birdwatcher
straitjacket and rocket launch stopwatch setter
and card casino royal flush chainsaw teeth sharpener
and nitroglycerine hugger atom splitter
and eclipse watcher
Death Row harmonica
and Wright Brothers glider Edgar Allen Poe orangutan
and Gypsy Rose Lee G-string front row ticket
to the end of the world and Albert Einstein’s
worst haircut as we stand in line
to punch a timeclock and the universe
can’t stop
laughing.

A Fate He Couldn't Fix

by Fred Voss

The new maintenance man told us machinists he’d had cancer
and beat it
“I’m strong!”
he’d say
and square his shoulders and stick out his elbows and flex his chest muscles like a man
who could bench-press 300 pounds
and he’d climb into his SkyLift and jack it up toward the ceiling and replace burned-out
fluorescent tube light bulbs
30 feet above our heads
stick his 2-foot-long flashlight inside our machines and know
exactly which belt or pulley or gear to replace
and stock his storeroom with earplugs and plastic and leather gloves and rolls of duct tape
for us to use
and grin and give the thumbs-up sign to us all like he had the world
on a string
with his electrical tape and his Skill saw and his channel-lock pliers and his spray-can
of WD-40 lube oil
until
one day he started limping and walking slower and slower
and told us
his blood was having trouble circulating in his left leg
and he was afraid they might have to amputate his left foot
maybe
he was a Vietnam War veteran and an alcoholic and had diabetes
maybe he was mad that Trump was president
and a working man in America couldn’t make ends meet anymore
maybe he couldn’t pay his healthcare bill and his wages were so low he couldn’t keep his house
or his son had stopped speaking to him and his wife was leaving him
but he kept walking slower and slower until
one day we heard he was being fired
and he climbed into his Sky Lift and jacked it up toward the ceiling above our heads
and began to replace a few last fluorescent tube light bulbs
and we gathered round under him and stared up at him and tried to joke with him
about his bad toupee
like we always did
but instead of laughing with the joke
he stuck out his left arm and cocked an imaginary trigger
on an imaginary rifle
shifting and pointing the imaginary rifle down at each of us like he was rehearsing
a slaughter
there’s nothing much sadder
than a maintenance man with all the tools and the know-how in the world
who can’t fix
his own life.

Why we talk about nothing but the weather
Saturday, 09 January 2021 16:35

Why we talk about nothing but the weather

Published in Poetry

Why we talk about nothing but the weather

by Fred Voss

The welder is walking around the shop wearing a T-shirt covered
in decal-like images of red white and blue assault rifles
on other days he wears a T-shirt
with National Rifle Association
plastered across it
is he one of Trump’s Proud Boys
does he have an arsenal under his bed at home
through these decades working in machine shops I have heard machinists
debating and joking and worrying and whispering about whether
this or that guy with a wrench or a welding rod in his hand will walk in
one morning and pull
an assault rifle out from under his jacket
is this welder the one
who will really walk in one day
and start spraying bullets
I want to ask him
why do you wear the shirt
are you afraid
are you angry
did your father beat you and tie you to the bed and rape you for years
do you think Hitler was a hero
I want to tell him
I wish I had slid a rose into the gun barrel of a cop
in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park during the summer
of love
I want to tell him I’m a poet who writes poems
denouncing Trump
and ask him if he thinks that means I should be put
in a concentration camp
but when I walk over with my stack of steel sheets
I want him to weld together so I can machine them
I smile
and he smiles back and says, “Wuzz up?”
and I shrug and say, “They say it’s gonna to be 10 degrees hotter today,”
and the welder says, “Yeah, gonna be fuckin’ hot today. Want me to weld these?”
and I nod and he takes the stack of steel sheets out of my hand and I say thanks
and walk back to my machine
like Nazis never existed
and those assault rifles emblazoned across his back and chest
are beautiful American flags
so I don’t tell him what I really think and burst
into a rage

sometimes
you just can’t really be yourself
and keep your job.

Naked under 10,000-watt lightbulbs
Wednesday, 25 November 2020 09:50

Naked under 10,000-watt lightbulbs

Published in Poetry

Naked under 10,000-watt lightbulbs

by Fred Voss

We machinists
are lucky to have our machines
machine handles we can grab when we are lonely green steel machine sides we can hide behind
when we feel guilty or ashamed
steel machine tables we can drop 100-pound machinist vises onto and green steel machine heads
we can pound with hammers knowing the machines
will never complain
or not be there the next morning bolted to the concrete floor in front of us
we can confess crimes
or lose our minds and scream or cry in front of our machines and they will tell
no one
the supervisors
have no machines to hide behind
or talk to
they come out of offices and stand on the shop floor as if
they are naked
under 10,000-watt lightbulbs
feeling like we are all craning our necks peering around our machines staring
at them and laughing inside
no handle
or hammer to grab no aircraft spar to cut or landing gear to bore
a hole through no workbench covered with nuts and bolts
to sit at or cutting oil
to wipe off their fingers with a green shop rag no barrel
of a micrometer to spin with their knuckles no muscle
to flex like Rocky Marciano after wrestling a 100-pound lathe chuck
up onto an engine lathe
guilty frowns creeping across their faces
the supervisors try to look strong and tough and useful by balling their fists up
like championship boxers
or racing around the concrete floor like Olympic
power walkers
but we machinists sense that somehow inside they feel useless and foolish
looking over our shoulders and giving us orders
sometimes they even stop
at a vacant machine and stare at its handles and grab them and turn them and smile
for a minute like little boys
pretending to be real machinists
we feel sorry for them
in their spotlessly clean white shirts carrying clipboards
and gripping pencils
and looking lost as the machines cut and pound and grind

not everyone can make this world out of steel and titanium like we can
with our bare hands
some just have to watch
and act like we could never do it
without them.

 

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

 

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