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 BonesHis latest book is Someday There Will Be Machine Shops Full of Roses and is available from Smokestack Books.

Running a Machine is the Easy Part
Tuesday, 04 June 2024 07:10

Running a Machine is the Easy Part

Published in Poetry

Fred Voss, the worker-poet from Long Beach, California, has sent us the poem below, with the following message:

Here's a poem I wrote this morning, I hope you like it. Things getting crazy here in USA with Trump a 34-count felon cheered on by the Republican party, as if he wasn't obviously a wannabe dictator. Totally irrational voters cheering on a madman intent on taking away their freedom and giving anyone who doesn't kiss his ass the shaft. But if the rich weren't screwing the poor so badly I don't think this would be happening. Anyway, I hope you are well and that Labor Party wins the next election and England keeps its senses while we try to right the Ship of State over here.

Running a Machine is the Easy Part

by Fred Voss, with Workers image above by Peter Kennard

I finish locking a block of steel into a vise
and look over to see the machinist at the next machine
has put some razor-sharp cutters in the top row of the cutter-holding rack
so that the cutters stick up where I might slice open my arm on the cutters
and I angrily slam the cutters back into the lower row of the cutter-holding rack
where I like to keep them so the cutters won’t slice open my arm
and the machinist walks over to slam them back into the top row
all my life
in machine shops there has been violence
screams
in faces knives under noses cold-cock punches
thrown out of shadows rumours
of guns in car glove compartments and once
even a life-like model of a hand grenade placed atop
my toolbox
by a Korean war veteran who knew how to make bombs
“I see you’re still an asshole!” I scream
at the machinist from the next machine and he says,
“People don’t talk like that to me,” and glowers and says,
“You’ve crossed a line with me.”
My heart pounds
and I begin to tremble with fury and I walk across the shop
into the Human Resources office and tell what’s happened
to the Human Resources lady and she calls the supervisor into the office
and the Human Resources lady and the supervisor listen to me tell what just happened
Human Resources asked us machine operators working on the shop floor to come to them
if we experience any friction out on the shop floor that could lead to dangerous violence
and I wait to hear what the Human Resources lady and the supervisor will do
black belts bikers PTSD Vietnam veterans ex-soldiers with lethal weapon hands survivors
of race riots or San Quentin cells men who wait for spacemen to contact them through chips
they think the spacemen have planted in their brains
out on a shop floor that feels like it’s a million miles
from where we sit in plush swivel office chairs and look across a big shiny conference table
at each other and talk rationally
and the Human Resources lady and the supervisor thank me for coming to them
and warning them and I walk back out onto the shop floor
where machines rattle and pound through 10-hour or 12-hour shifts
and men earn barely enough to live in tiny slum apartments
remembering how their fathers used to own big houses
with 2-car garages
and I take a cutter from the top row of the cutter rack
and lock it into my machine’s head
and begin to carve a 4130 block of steel
and wait for my heart to stop pounding and my hands to stop trembling
and try to figure how best to keep my arms away
from razor-sharp cutters in the top row of tool racks
out in this other world
where no one sits in a plush
swivel chair.

Working Till We Drop
Thursday, 09 May 2024 07:38

Working Till We Drop

Published in Poetry

Working Till We Drop

by Fred Voss, with image from Les McConnell

I am pouring water from a faucet into a bucket
to mix it with the coolant in the bucket and pour the water and coolant into my machine
when Clarence
who works with hand-grinders in the deburring department looks over from his workbench
and says, “Hey Fred, you know I read in the paper that a person should have a million dollars
saved up before they retire….
I have a little money in my 401k but not anywhere near that….
and social security….you can’t live on that….
guess I can’t retire yet Fred….”
and I think of all the times I’ve heard men in factories say
“I’ll have to work till I drop”
and then try to laugh about it
and Clarence tries to laugh but it sticks in his throat and he says,
“My sister worked as an accountant and she made good money and saved all her life
and she’s doing fine retired but you know….they tell you when you’re young to save for retirement….
but I didn’t….and I tell my son to save for his retirement
but he isn’t….”
and I shut off the water because my bucket is full
what are we supposed to do
eat nothing but lentil soup
all our life
watch our teeth fall out of our mouth ride to work
crowded together with strangers on a bus pretend sitting in a lounge chair in our backyard
is travelling to an exotic vacation spot
while the 401k experts from financial companies scold us about not saving enough
as they casually scoff at the idea of our thinking we can live on social security
and make jokes about the scarcity of rich uncles and smile in their shiny new suits
while we squirm in our ragged torn T-shirts barely making enough money to get by
“Yeah, well, I guess I won’t be retiring anytime soon either….” I say
and carry the bucket full of water back to my machine
and open a drawer to my toolbox and pull out my big blue union button
from the days long ago before they shut down the big aerospace company I worked at
with 54,000 other people
and hold the button in the palm of my hand
like it is pure gold
I’ve read in the paper how unions are beginning to stand tall again
as men and women across the land walk picket lines
and win
and I look at the image on the button of workers standing together in a ring circling the globe
locking hands
to hold each other up
so we will never have to work
till we drop.

Midnight Boxcar Poetry
Monday, 25 March 2024 09:44

Midnight Boxcar Poetry

Published in Poetry

Midnight Boxcar Poetry

by Fred Voss

Sometimes I feel I should tell all the men in this building
I write poems
about them
their smiles
their hammers their larger-than-life laughs bouncing off
the 70-foot-high factory ceiling like they should be heard
by all the world
but somehow
it would be like putting a beautiful wild Bengal Tiger
in a cage
clipping the wings
of an African Grey parrot skimming the tops
of Brazilian rainforest trees as a rainbow
appears
telling the pool player in Van Gogh’s hellish The Night Café
he will be in a painting
someday worth 10 million dollars
a meteor can’t help streaking across a sky
a cat doesn’t know how
it leaps from a 12th-storey window
and lives
a Joe Louis punch
was born before the first poem
was ever spoken
would you tell Marlon Brando to look into a mirror
right before he yells, “STELLA!”
in A Streetcar Named Desire
when I walk around my machine gripping this wrench
among all these men real and natural as Niagara Falls
I never read
Shakespeare or Shelley or walked the halls
of UCLA PhD school in English literature
and I look over at the man at the next machine
as a drop of cutting oil drips from his brush
onto the razor-sharp flutes of a 5-pound tool steel cutter in his fist
40 years ago he rode a boxcar
across midnight Arizona sands to get
to this machine shop
when he was 19 and homeless and could barely read a word
but how can I ever tell him
all the poems there ever were or ever will be
shine
inside that drop of golden
cutting oil.

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.

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.

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

 

 

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.”

Jean Valjean stole that loaf of bread for all of us
Saturday, 30 July 2022 07:37

Jean Valjean stole that loaf of bread for all of us

Published in Poetry

Jean Valjean stole that loaf of bread for all of us

by Fred Voss

These machinists or welders or overhead crane operators
who voted for Trump
and wave huge red white and blue flags from the back of their pickup trucks
work under the same tin roof
as me
a socialist poet who keeps his socialist poetry under wraps, secret,
in this factory
don’t we
all get thinner and thinner and thinner
when we don’t have enough to eat
can’t a wrench
in our hands
make a Brooklyn Bridge for lovers to look up at
or a piano bench
for Beethoven to sit on
so he can put moonlight into piano keys
can’t a hammer
in our fist pound a nail into the bed under Napoleon
or Einstein
a ray of sun
hitting our backs as we face engine lathe or crane hook or weld bead
on a cold winter morning
warm our souls
a concrete floor
we have walked across for 30 years tell us we are getting old
with each new ache in knees and hips
isn’t holding a baby granddaughter to our breast and rocking her
worth every star
in the sky
don’t we all crave cool water
when we walk across a mile of summer desert sand at noon
won’t lightning from the sky
strike us both dead
the fat cats at the top
pick both our pockets
didn’t Jean Valjean steal that loaf of bread
for all of us
so we wouldn’t starve
and aren’t the smoking chips of steel on our milling machine tables
and the beads of sweat
trickling down our backs
enough truth to tell us all
Trump
riding down his golden escalator
with his slogans and orange hair and red hats and Mussolini chin
is a lie?

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