Fred Voss

Fred Voss

Fred Voss, a machinist for 32 years, has had three collections of poetry published by the UK’s Bloodaxe Books. His latest booklet is The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand, published by Culture Matters.

The election: Waiting for a Spark
Monday, 25 November 2019 16:42

The election: Waiting for a Spark

Published in Poetry

Waiting for a Spark

by Fred Voss

Overtime
used to be a boon
put on a 6-day 12-hour 3pm to 3am nightshift schedule for a few months
a man would laugh and bear
sleeping through the day and hardly seeing
his wife and children
losing touch with friends
and the world
he would laugh as he stood sleepy-eyed in line at the bank and deposited
fat check after fat check
saving for a boat a house a full dresser Gold Wing motorcycle a bottle of $200 cognac
a penthouse in Cancun a box full of $50
cigars a baseball
signed by Babe Ruth knowing
the overtime would have an end
now
Rusty looks at me with deep bags under his eyes and says,
“I’m burned out, Fred….”
now
men like Rusty and me need unending overtime
10 or 11 hours a day 6 or 7 days a week to make
house or car payments
rent
root canal engine tune-up shoelaces 6-pack
of cheap beer
“I’ve been working 11 or 12 hour shifts 6 days a week
for 20 years now,”
Rusty says to me
once
overtime could have meant sailing our new boat through a blue wave
slipping a diamond ring
on our wife’s finger sending a grandchild
to Princeton sunbathing
on a Greek beach where Ulysses finally came home to Penelope after killing the Cyclops
and surviving the Sirens
now
Rusty and I are both in our late 60s and still working overtime to just make ends meet
and I look deeply into Rusty’s tired-to-death eyes
and wonder when our own odyssey
across these choppy treacherous bone-wearying concrete shop floor overtime waters
will end
so we can finally
come home.

Fred Voss writes: As a commentator said recently regarding the upsurge in strikes in America, "the workplace today in America is like a tinderbox waiting for a spark to set it on fire". Here's hoping the upcoming elections in the U.K. and U.S. are the spark that lights the fire of long overdue respect and justice for working men and women.

 

 

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.

 

The Waterfall and the Song and the Hammer in the Hand
Sunday, 24 June 2018 21:43

The Waterfall and the Song and the Hammer in the Hand

Published in Poetry

The Waterfall and the Song and the Hammer in the Hand

by Fred Voss

Too many of the white machinists in this shop like Trump
they are good men
with a tool steel square or a finely calibrated micrometer gripped
in their hands
or a newly-born granddaughter held
against their heartbeats
but they have been fooled by a con artist
in the white house
and I look over at the Indian milling machine operators from Guatemala
and El Salvador
some of them rode the tops of boxcars into this country
others
send money home to mothers living next to sacred rivers
I give them this country
they do not engrave their names across their molybdenum-steel wrenches
and hide them away in toolboxes locked
with chain and padlock like the white machinists
they leave them spread across workbenches for other machinists
to use
and tape pictures of beautiful waterfalls
to their toolboxes
and I look over at the Mexican tool grinders from East L.A. singing mariachi
they would rather fill the air with beautiful melody
than wave a red white and blue flag
I give them the future
the Gabrielino Indian turret lathe operator whose ancestors lived in this L.A. basin
a thousand years ago
standing straight with a truth in his heart Trump can never touch
I put my hope
in him
and any man who needs a job
a home
a dream
I put my hope in the waterfall
and the song
and the hammer in the hand
we white men took this country
with our guns and our trains and our law books
but it was never really ours
its waterfalls
its waves its condors
its skies its grass blades and sunsets
and seas its beauty
like a wide-open workbench covered with tool steel wrenches free for all
to use.

This poem was partly inspired by by the current horrific immigrant situation surrounding the Mexico/U.S. border.

More important than Elvis's comb
Saturday, 14 April 2018 18:08

More important than Elvis's comb

Published in Poetry

Fred Voss sent in the following poem after reading the new collection by Martin Hayes, The Things Our Hands Once Stood For, published by Culture Matters and available here.

More important than Elvis's comb

by Fred Voss

What is more important
than a cheap blue linoleum kitchen table in a little apartment
a spoon a bowl of hot clam chowder on that table a chair
with a back so a young man can sit
and eat the chowder
as he puts all the courage he has into trying to be a man who works
at a blast furnace
what is more important than the stink of the steel as he heats it red-hot
in roaring white-hot blast furnace flame
his going on
like the earth turning the whale singing the sun shining
each knuckle
in the young man’s hands each drop of sweat
that slithers
down his back
each breath he takes each hope he hangs onto each black shoelace
of each boot around his feet as he sparks on a cutting torch at 1 am
while everyone else sleeps
he is the one
who built the roads nailed the roofs carried the buckets of cement
drove the red-hot rivets into bridges steered buses through crowded cities walked
the naked steel skyscraper I-beams 1,000 feet above the street dove
beneath the waves stroking to save the drowning man broke
through the smoking door to rush into the burning building and save
the babe
are the stars more important the heroes
of sagas the statues of Lincoln the comb
of Elvis the Nikes
of Michael Jordan the eyelashes of Madonna the cross of Christ the bank vault
of a billionaire the sonatas
of Beethoven more important
than the time card
the young man drops into the time clock KA-CHUNK
as the eye
of the old man on the surface grinder twinkles winking
at the young man saying, “Yes, you can do it”
and the young man steps up
to a red-hot bar of steel and sparks on his cutting torch
to carve out a tooth for the bucket of a bulldozer
that will move
mountains.

 

National Poetry Day: None of us are really machines
Wednesday, 27 September 2017 08:28

National Poetry Day: None of us are really machines

Published in Poetry

None of us are really machines

by Fred Voss

Every once in a while a man
falls apart next to a machine with perfect thousandth-of-an-inch calibration marks
all over its dials
trains roll on time
time clocks never miss a tick
Jupiter never stops revolving or orbiting the sun
but a man
who has come through a tin door with a lunch pail in his fist for 20 or 30 years
and stood tall and firm as a redwood tree beside his machine turning out perfect
door hinges or engine rings like clockwork
can suddenly
start shaking
and collapse onto a steel stool and cry and not be able to turn out
one more part
as his micrometers calibrated to one-ten-thousandth-of-an-inch accuracy sit
on the workbench waiting for him
to pick them up
like he has 10 million times before
there are men between these factory tin walls where we work away our lives we hardly
know at all
until suddenly
they fire their fist into a foreman’s face
or start screaming at the top of their lungs and can’t
stop
as the tooling cabinets sit full of check pins ground to one-ten-thousandth-of-an-inch-perfect
diameter
and the timeclock ticks its millionth perfect tiny tick
and pendulums all over the earth swing according to Galileo’s formula for gravity
and the machines roar and rattle and chew steel
there is a man out on the shop floor who can’t go on
one more minute
and maybe a few weeks off to sit in a lounge chair on a beach and watch the waves roll in
or play and sing silly songs with his 2-year-old granddaughter
will fix this man
or maybe we will never see him again
but every so often there is a man on this hard concrete shop floor who must remind us
none of us are really
machines.

The Heels of Can-Can Dancers Kicking Towards the Stars
Wednesday, 22 February 2017 10:31

The Heels of Can-Can Dancers Kicking Towards the Stars

Published in Poetry

The Heels of Can-Can Dancers Kicking Towards the Stars

by Fred Voss

A poem is a reason to get up in the morning
the crowns
of 100 Sequoia redwood trees soaking in the sun
together a cup
of ice water in the middle of the Sahara desert a poem
bounces across a midnight alley like the eyes
of the black cat travels
around the globe like the song of the whale at the bottom
of the sea
no king
will ever rule as completely as the laws of gravity true
as poems a poem
is the kiss of a beautiful woman on the lips of a man who has just finished doing 20 years
in San Quentin the hooting
of the owl during a total eclipse
of the sun a poem
runs down an Olympic track like Jesse Owens’s black feet proving Hitler’s white master race
a lie breaks
open the Bastille because no human being can ever be kept down
forever takes
off his hat to no man as he strides like Walt Whitman
down his open road
a poem
is the heels of can-can dancers kicking
toward the stars Hamlet
saying words that will last longer
than all the empires a poem
is a strawberry ice cream cone licked
under fireworks
a man
on a bridge over a river pressing a trumpet to his lips playing notes so beautiful he will never
          jump
into the water below a poem
hits harder than any hammer a poem is a girder
in a skyscraper the spine of a saber-toothed tiger the horn
of a midnight train crossing a bridge over the Mississippi River
as Huck Finn paddles escaped slave Jim down its deep waters
toward freedom old
as a poem.

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