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.

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.

 

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.

The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand
Thursday, 22 December 2016 13:52

The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand

Published in Books

Poems by Fred Voss

£5.99 (plus £1.50 p&p) 48 pp ISBN 978 1907 464102

 

I want to change the world, I want to strike the spark or kick the pebble that will start the fire or the avalanche that will change the world a little.

- Fred Voss

Everyone can see the growing inequality, the precarious and low paid nature of employment, the housing crisis in our cities, the divisions and inequalities between social classes, the problems of obesity, drink and drugs, and the sheer everyday struggle to pay the bills for many working people. In this situation, Fred Voss is like a prophet. He is warning us of the consequences of the way we live, he is telling truth to power, and he is inspiring us with a positive vision of a possible – and desirable – socialist future.

- Len McCluskey, General Secretary, Unite the Union