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.

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?

Two Kinds of God
Sunday, 03 July 2022 11:33

Two Kinds of God

Published in Poetry

Two Kinds of God

by Fred Voss, with image by Martin Gollan

5 people in robes
have done the work of God
no lightning bolts
no earthquakes
no Moses parting the Red Sea
no Jesus rising from the grave
just 5 votes
by people who brush their teeth
and wipe their ass
and have opinions
5 people in robes
who have sweat glands and hair follicles and sex organs and toenails
have delivered the word of God
to Lupita
working on a factory grinding wheel
with her head in a cloud of steel dust
her fingers wrapped in green surgical tape so the stone wheel won’t tear apart
her skin
a 19-year-old employee working 70 hours a week to put the roof of a tiny apartment
over her head
barely hanging on
week to week
paycheck to paycheck
and the word is:
THOU SHALT NOT HAVE ABORTIONS
and Lupita puts a steel part in her fingers to the grinding wheel
perhaps she prays to her God that she will not become pregnant
her God
a God of compassion
and perhaps she prays she will not have a child she can’t afford
and can’t give a decent life to
for sure she prays to a God her mother prayed to when Lupita had to leave El Salvador
and come to America on top of a boxcar
and work to send money home to her mother
a God
who stands for the sanctity of life
not only for the unborn
but for all of us who walk this earth
working our hearts out
for the ones
we love.

Waiting to Run a Raindrop Machine
Sunday, 01 May 2022 08:18

Waiting to Run a Raindrop Machine

Published in Poetry

Waiting to Run a Raindrop Machine

by Fred Voss

The weather forecast says it may finally rain today
and a machinist throws open the big steel overhead door
and waits
munching an apple and looking out at the sky
then another machinist
and another
and another walk over to stand at the door until 5 machinists have left their machines
and are looking out
at the sky
as this drought and global warming
get worse and worse
after all our surface grinders raising clouds of steel dust
our vertical milling machines
shaving steel blocks until they smoke
our brown cutting oil and razor-sharp carbide steel cutting edges and humming motors
and solid tool steel machinist squares and trigonometry tables
after all the parts we machinists have made out of hard hard steel
isn’t it strange our lives hang on something soft
as a raindrop
the beauty in the wet leaves atop the trees
in a rain forest
the paws of polar bears and lions that need to go on walking
this earth
a bee
buzzing over a yellow flower Vincent Van Gogh showing us why
a starry night
is enough to live for a poem
as important
as all the pyramids on Egyptian sands or rockets
to Mars
and I go to stand with those machinists at that overhead door
the way men since the Stone Age have always stood when they knew their lives depended
on water
from the sky
if only these were machine handles we could grab to turn wind
and sun
into electricity
maybe those raindrops would fall
and fill rivers so new cities
made by machinists with hearts full of green leaves
could rise.

Two new poems from Fred Voss
Sunday, 03 April 2022 09:29

Two new poems from Fred Voss

Published in Poetry

Beethoven whistles at a cat in a seventh storey window

by Fred Voss

Some men in this machine shop
work slowly as they can
without getting fired
others work at breakneck speed like their lives depend on it
I prefer to work the way all the poppies on the hillside
bloom
the way the sea otter cracks open clams he has found while floating
on his back
in the fog
some men clock in to this machine shop each morning at 6 am with their head hung down
like they are dragging a ball and chain
I want to reach for my wrench each morning
the way a 2,000-year-old Sequoia redwood tree reaches
for the sun
lube oil
flowing to my machine table’s tool steel ways
like the blood pulsing in the veins of the blue whale deep beneath
the sea
some men flash a dog-eat-dog scowl like they are ready to work so fast
they will make every other man in the shop
look bad
I want to tighten nuts down around the threads of bolts
the way waves have curled and rolled in toward beaches
for a billion years
and the lion’s roar makes every beast on the African veldt
lift its head
I am not here
to compete or hang my head like a slave or work my ass off trying to make any other worker
look bad
I am here in this shop gripping a hammer with my fist
because the stars shine
and Jim Morrison held an arena full of 15,000 people spellbound
with his silence
and red magma shakes the earth to explode into the air and make
mountains
and doves build nests and carpenters pound nails and Beethoven whistled I work
the way Jupiter turns and Thelonious Monk laughs and all of us
take the next step
as hummingbirds search for nectar and the roots of trees wait
for water
and the cat leaping out of a 7th story window lands
on its feet
I work because the pendulum swings
and icicles drip and little girls stand on tiptoe to hug their fathers
because Halley’s Comet returns
as hearts beat and roses
open.

A thousand secrets of steel in his fingers

by Fred Voss

When I was young and learning to be a machinist
I’d be hired
at a company and roll my toolbox on a cart down an aisle
to a machine
Bridgeport
or Cincinnati vertical mill or maybe even a Polish horizontal mill with a name
I’d never heard of before
strange knobs and gear shifts and ancient gear belts
and automatic feed levers to the machine table’s “x” and “y” axes
even “Machine Start” buttons I couldn’t find
puzzled me
a block of steel that had to be turned into a part per a blueprint
in front of me
a roof over my head and the bread on my table
at stake
as machinist veterans who knew the machines backwards and could make them do anything
watched me
out of the corners of their eyes and stayed silent
and kept the secrets of sine bars and trigonometry tables and universal heads
and spindle speeds and red-hot chips and steel screams
to themselves
until an old machinist with a thousand secrets of steel in his fingers would finally walk over
and show me the handles I needed to throw
the stub drill
I needed to lock into the Jacobs chuck
the set-up with nuts and bolts and clamps I needed to make
on the machine table to machine the part
an old machinist
who remembered what it was like to wake up in the morning and not know
if you could make your way
in this world
who hadn’t become as hard
as crowbars and ballpeen hammers and concrete floors and tin walls
and razor-sharp tool steel cutters and foremen and companies
who worshipped dog-eat-dog bottom lines
a machinist
who knew there was nothing in this world
more important
than a flesh and blood
helping hand.

Two new poems by Fred Voss
Saturday, 15 January 2022 14:28

Two new poems by Fred Voss

Published in Poetry

Under Their Sweaty Wings

by Fred Voss

I have had many fathers between tin walls
one
who told me to lay a crescent wrench across the jaws of a vice
if I left the vice untightened at the end of the workday
so I wouldn’t forget it was loose the next morning and drop a block of steel between its jaws
and send the teeth of a cutter flying through the steel and have the steel explode
in my face
another taught me how to tell what RPM to set a cutter at by putting his palm
flat against the side of a milling machine head and feeling its vibrations
like a gypsy fortune-teller
reading a palm
another told me of how when he was young he wrestled Gorgeous George to the mat
in the Olympic Auditorium in downtown L.A.
lonely
as a street urchin wandering a concrete machine shop floor trying to learn a skill to make a living
with a long-necked can of cutting oil and whatever grit I could pull out
of my guts
leaving Shakespeare a million miles behind in a graduate school I’d dropped out of
these were my fathers
from Lebanon or El Salvador or East L.A. gang or WW2 submarine or prison cell
          or circus trapeze
who’d landed in this machine shop
too
fathers with toolboxes they’d worn shiny and smooth with decades of their fingers
opening and shutting their drawers
men who’d been shell-shocked divorced shot at who’d cut a finger off or gone mad
howling at the moon working too many years on graveyard shift
fathers
when I hadn’t seen my father in 2 years when my mother
had disowned me and bikers with metal plates in their legs or heads
were my only friends
and I hadn’t yet written one poem to show me the way
fathers
who made cutting oil and shiny chips of brass
seem holy
giving me old tape measures and sine bars that had crossed the raging Atlantic or a Mexican
          desert full of cactus
like I was the son they never had
their toolboxes Bibles
the invention of fire the rolling of the first wheel the hammering of the first nail
in their twinkling eyes
taking me under their sweaty wing
giving me a home where forklifts rolled and Krakatoa 2-ton drop hammers boomed
and I laced up my steel-toed boots and squared a hardhat
on my head
home at last
where the ticking of a timeclock
was the mother
of us all.

Why Beethoven Kept His Fingers On The Piano Keys

by Fred Voss

I have stood before time clocks
for 45 years
once
they were big steel boxes with clock hands that ticked like doom
last judgements
that said our lives were worth something only if we dropped a timecard
into them by 6:00 am or 3:30 pm or midnight so they could go
KA-CHUNK!
and punch the cards so we could begin our day shift or swing shift or graveyard shift in some factory
now
they are computers
waiting for our finger on a mouse to click the “Clock On” box on a screen
so our lives can have value
I have seen men just off 3-day drunks
with fingers shaking so badly from head-shattering hangovers they can barely grip
a timecard or mouse long enough
to clock in
because their wives have left them or threatened them with a carving knife
or died
and I have seen men dying to go to Vegas because they feel dead sure Lady Luck is finally ready
to give them that million-dollar jackpot
reach down inside themselves for every last bit of willpower they can find
and clock in
to keep their feet on solid ground
and a grip on their lives and walk across a hard concrete floor and turn on their machine
and know
they are still worth something
KA-CHUNK!
went the timeclock or “click”
went the mouse and the men were still in the game
as blast furnaces spit white-hot flame
or the twin towers fell down and smoked
or the sun dimmed in total eclipse over the Amazon river
still worth something
as the tigers roared in midnight jungles
and the stars shone down on thousand-year-old cathedrals
as they walked toward a machine
to turn it on and carve tool steel down into an engine ring
for a rocket into outer space
or shaved brass down into the bell of a trumpet
so it could serenade
a newly-wed bride dancing under the moon
still worth something
like Beethoven
keeping his fingers on the piano keys
and every man who has ever turned off a ringing alarm clock and gone
to work.

Beautiful as a picket line under a rising sun 
Wednesday, 20 October 2021 09:18

Beautiful as a picket line under a rising sun 

Published in Poetry

Beautiful as a picket line under a rising sun       

by Fred Voss            

“Beautiful!”
my Lead Man would exclaim as he held an aircraft part I’d cut out of aluminum
up into the light of the 10,000-Watt bulbs shining down from the 70-foot-high machine shop ceiling
and it WAS beautiful
in those days of the unions
decades ago
my Lead Man’s ex-hippie long hair tied in a pony tail hanging down
his back
beautiful
as our union wages that paid for houses and boats and college educations for our children
and vacations to Europe and the pensions solid as a rock we looked forward to
and the health care we could count on to carry us through heart attack
or cancer
beautiful
as the muscle and pride of Gus the 40-year-veteran bedmill operator who walked
the concrete floor around his machine
like a lion
making mountains of steel and aluminum chips no man
could match
so he could ride home on his full-dresser Gold Wing motorcycle shaking his long hair
in the wind
and laugh
“Right On!”
our Lead Man would yell like a Black Panther freedom marcher in 1969 asserting his right to be
a human being
when he picked up and admired an aircraft part we’d cut as we machinists
looked at each other and smiled
strong as a union picket line
under a rising sun
a brotherhood
solid as a 30-pound tool steel cutter carving titanium
into an airplane wing carry-through section
sure as a 7-foot-long boring bar shaving a hole through a big-as-a-car landing gear
that would let an airplane carrying 300 people
land
soft as a good dream on a goose-down pillow
we were right on
and beautiful
as Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy before they were shot
a machinist
with a union card in his pocket letting him walk so tall no boss
could ever stare him down
an aircraft wing actuator we’d machined
sitting shining and perfect in our palm
a grandson
we’d lifted into our arms smiling up at us
because he knew
we’d always leave him
a better world.

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.

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.

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.

 

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