Someday There Will Be Machine Shops Full of Roses

In 1974 Fred Voss abandoned a PhD in English literature at the University of California, Los Angeles, and went to work as a machinist in a steel-mill. Someday There Will be Machine Shops Full of Roses looks back on fifty years of working on machine-shop floors up and down the West Coast – the noise and the silence, long shifts and short tempers, old-timers and pushy young machinists, profits in the boardrooms and wage-cuts on the cold shop-floor, the bravado, the boredom and the comradeship. These new poems confirm Voss as the heir to Charles Bukowski, Philip Levine and Robert Tressell, beautiful hymns of praise to skilled workers everywhere who handle the dangerous Promethean gift of fire.

Front cover: Francisco Goya, La Fragua (c.1817)

Sample Poems

Getting a Grip

Richard and Wes walk out
into the middle of the concrete floor between their machines
and square off
like they are in the middle of a wrestling ring
and SLAP
throw their palms together and lock thumbs
as the spindles of our machines hum with their cutters slicing
aluminium and steel
and we machinists all turn to watch
Richard can’t get a grip on making his house payments
in his battle to keep his house from being foreclosed
because he hasn’t had a raise in 4 years
Wes can’t get a grip on his marriage because his low wage
keeps him from putting down the bottle
but Richard and Wes can have a grip contest
crouching and wrenching their arms about as their knees
begin to buckle
and they grind their teeth and grunt
trying to bring each other down
onto a rock-hard concrete floor
a man who lived in a cave once gripped the first spear
and hurled it into the side of an antelope
the opposable thumb
the key to club and handle and hammer and chisel and knot
and nail and wheel and pyramid and cathedral
closing around diamond or throat creating city
or balling into fist and starting
a war lifting baby
toward moon or digging
the first grave and Wes
is forcing Richard’s knees closer to the concrete floor
as the tendons in Wes’s and Richard’s necks and wrists
stand out like cords
and they grunt and throw each other’s arms back and forth
trying to make each other fall
they can’t get a grip on politics
or nuclear war or Einstein’s theory of relativity or why
we can’t stop the seas from rising
maybe they can’t get a grip on their lives
and keep them from falling apart
but they can lock fists and take it out on each other
and see who wins
even though somewhere deep in all our machinist hearts
we know
as the banks and the bosses and fat capitalist cats
and presidents beat us down
if we workers don’t learn to come together soon
we’re all
going to lose.

Can Revolutions Start in Washrooms?

I’m standing
in front of the washroom mirror washing up
after another day’s work
all my life
I’ve seen the working man beaten down
unions broken
wages falling
as CEO salaries skyrocket and stockbrokers get rich
and politicians talk of ‘trickle down’
and ‘the land of opportunity’
and ‘the American way’
and Earl on the turret lathe
keeps tying and retying his shoelaces that keep breaking
and blinks through 30-year-old glasses and finally
gives up his car
to ride the bus to work
and Ariel on the Cincinnati milling machines turns 72
heaving 80-pound vices onto steel tables
with swollen arthritic fingers and joking
about working until he drops
all my life I’ve wondered
why we men who’ve twisted chuck handles
until our wrists screamed
shoved thousands of tons of steel into white-hot blast furnaces
under midnight moons
leaned our bodies against screaming drill motors meeting
cruel deadlines until we thought
our hearts would burst
are silent
as the owners build their McMansions on hills and smoke big
cigars driving a different
$100,000 leased car to work each month
why after bailing out the banks
losing our houses
seeing our wages slashed
and our workloads rise
I’ve never heard one word
of revolt
and Teddy the bear of a gantry mill operator
walks into the washroom to wash
all the razor-sharp steel chips
and stinking black machine grease off
his arms and hands
he’s been driving the same cheap motorcycle
for 20 years and says,
‘Hey which front office person is driving
that brand new Jaguar I see parked out there now?’
and none of us can answer
as we raise our heads from the sinks
‘Well, whoever it is,’ Teddy says,
‘They’re making too much money!’

After 40 years of silence
I can’t help wishing his words could be like the musket shot
that set off the storming
of the Bastille.

Wedding Rings and Tombstones

We carved the stones
for cathedrals when men believed God was as real
as a redwood tree
we hammered the red-hot rivets
into bridges spanning wild rivers after Nietzsche said
God was dead
we made frames
for stretchers carrying men off bloody battlefields
bomb bay doors
dropping bombs that burn women alive
in hospital beds
we cut
steel holders for candles burning above the head of a mother
praying the operation
will save her daughter’s sight feet
of 8th-story hotel bathtubs where opera divas
bathe hinges
for cell doors that close on men who must wait
for the electric chair combs
to shape the curl across the forehead of the movie star
who will soon cry as she holds the best actress Oscar
world wars come and go
Atlantic City casinos
rise and fall newsreels show the blinking eyes
of starved-to-skin-and-bone Auschwitz survivors
Neil Armstrong
sinks a boot into moon dust as we make
bedsprings and scalpels
trumpet mouthpieces and bulldozer teeth
a frying pan for Greta Garbo’s
scrambled eggs and a cattle prod
for a torturer Alexander the Great
cries because he has no more worlds to conquer
Hitler shoots himself in his bunker
and people still need screwdrivers
and hairbrushes and we pick up our hammers
our wrenches our chisels as the sun rises
at 6.31am and the sweat
on our backs is still sweat and people
still need bowls and wheels
and kettledrums
the next baby to be born may be the man
to stop global warming or push
the button beginning World War 3
but the world will still need us to make wedding rings
and tombstones.

Another Kind of Beauty

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
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 Currie accepting
the Nobel Prize and every dream that ever
came true.

What is a Hammer Compared to the Heart of a Brother?

The white machinists lock up their tools
in their toolboxes each night
they etch their names with electric etching guns
into their wrenches and callipers
and micrometers and hammers and protractors
and lock them away
in their toolboxes each night with latches
and sometimes big heavy padlocks
and even chains
counting drills and chuck keys and cutting taps
with an eye always peeled
for thieves
they believe in jail cells electric chairs hellfire
loan nothing
and paste big stickers saying ‘NO!’
to the insides of their toolbox lids
as the Mexican machinists hand each other their tools
with big smiles on their faces
leave their toolbox drawers open
and never lock their toolboxes
and sing
old socialist songs from the revolution south of the border
old mariachi love songs
their grandparents sing in old East L.A. houses
where 4 generations of their family
live together
what is a wrench compared to the faith they have they will
take care
of each other
what is a hammer compared to the heart
of a brother
what is a toolbox full of tools for
the seas
the moon
the rain that makes this earth green if not
us all
as rice is thrown at weddings and children kneel
at great grand parents’ deathbeds
and crucifixes shine in the palms of old Mexican ladies
ready for heaven
as Emiliano Zapata’s eyes burn
and Che Guevara camps in the hills
and the white machinists grow bitter
clutching their tools as their billionaires lock billions away
in bank vaults and the polar ice caps
melt and the land
they took from the Mexicans burns
in global warming drought
and the Mexicans smile handing each other their tools
and their hearts.

Someday There Will Be Machine Shops Full of Roses

The owner of the machine shop calls me into his tiny
windowless office
we sit
staring at each other across a dark wooden desk
I want to tell him
I went to college too
had a mother who wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer
or a company president
like him
but I am a machinist
and we are discussing me putting out more parts per hour
on the 3 machines I run
and he wears a spotless pressed white shirt
and I have black machine grease all over my ragged sweaty
tank top
I want to ask him if he has read Spinoza Aristotle
Confucius Homer Sophocles Shakespeare
Goethe Marx Darwin Tennessee Williams
or written 2 thousand poems
and 7 novels
like I have
I want to tell him that I’m trying to give machinists
and pounding oily machines and taps and cutters
and tin walls and bosses like him their place in literature
and history
but he says I need to put out 10% more parts per hour
and he is looking at a glass display case
full of the shiny brass and steel and beryllium copper parts
we machinists make
mounted on his wall
and I don’t think he’s read Shakespeare in a long time
if ever
I want to read him my poem
about bringing some roses into the machine shop
and setting them in a glass of water
on my workbench
and ask him if he doesn’t think there’s a place
for poetry
in the machine shop
but he is tapping a pencil angrily against his desktop
and glaring at me waiting
for me to tell him how I will raise my production rate 10%
and I know I will never be able to read him
any of my poems
it looks like his place in literature and history
will be a lot less interesting
than it might have been.


‘Thank whoever you follow that we have Fred Voss, who has written poems about his work and the grinding effect work has on the lives of working-class men and women in America, for the past four decades.’

Peter Raynard

‘His writing makes you want to become a better person – it makes you want to go out and change the world.’

Martin Hayes

‘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, former General Secretary, Unite the Union

‘The resilience and anger in these poems feels real, feels true, because it feels so hard won. Fred Voss is an important poet, because he has given testimony about hat was done to us in the course of work and the loss of work under capitalism, and how we fought back, or tried to.’

Culture Matters

‘vibrant postcards from the continuing strange new world of the American machine shop, with its vernacular speech and raw open emotions.’

Morning Star

‘Voss’s poems are constantly evoking our shared human nature and rebelling against its abuse by those blinded by the pursuit of material gain and the power which accompanies it.

Mistress Quickly’s Bed