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)
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 maybe 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 maybe 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 maybe 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.
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.
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.
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 Currie accepting the Nobel Prize and every dream that ever came true.
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 sharing everything 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.
The owner of the machine shop calls me into his tiny windowless office again 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 lately 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.’
‘His writing makes you want to become a better person – it makes you want to go out and change the world.’
‘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.’
‘vibrant postcards from the continuing strange new world of the American machine shop, with its vernacular speech and raw open emotions.’
‘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