Nick Moss reviews Fred Voss's latest book of poetry, available here
There is a curiously valedictory tone to some of Fred Voss’s writing here. In fact “valedictory” doesn’t come close to it – I’m dancing round the issue. Some of these poems sound beaten, distressed, as if he’s had the shit kicked out of him one time too many.
Fred Voss has been, over seven books of poetry, the most unflinching documentarist of working life. All of that remains true, here. Many of the poems remind us also of how technically skilled Voss is – in particular that he has a rhythm and flow to his work that makes the writing of more renowned poets seem jarring and discordant. But it is part of the honesty that Voss seeks to give voice to that these are poems that feel as if they’re written by someone who’s been laid off one time too many, lost too many arguments. It doesn’t make them weak poems, but it’s a sadder, less defiant read.
As an example, the opening poem, Getting a Grip, about a workplace fight-cum-wrestling match, focuses on the fact that…
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
…such that this, like so many of the poems here, becomes a simple blues. People squabble, people let life slip through their hands, because they have not enough to get by, because life’s taken another crap turn. There seems no way out. This is the US working class as a fragmented, divided force: ex-radicals now Trump voters, with Voss noting it all down in the hope that it will help him, and those around him, make sense of it, and move forward:
all my life
I’ve seen the working man beaten down
as CEO salaries skyrocket and stock brokers get rich
- Can Revolutions Start in Washrooms?
Voss is great at showing us what defeat means in practice. From the same poem:
and Earl on the turret lathe
keeps tying and retying his shoelaces that keep breaking
and blinks through his 30-year-old-glasses and finally
gives up his car
to ride the bus to work
and in his sketch of the homeless “…everywhere/sleeping and living on our sidewalks” and what it does to us to accept homelessness as a norm: “these homeless/ growing more and more human day after day/as we pass them by in our sleek shiny cars/ each day becoming more and more/ like beasts.” (Cadillac Beasts.)
For much of the book, though, there is simply an almost overwhelming sense of loss, of a relentless alienation from ourselves which has come to look like all that we are seemingly reduced to:
but I wish at age 62 I could tell these men
the real strength
is in the curve of the petal
of a Van Gogh sunflower
the stunted broken legs of a dwarfed Lautrec rising
from a Paris suicide floor to turn of the gas
and paint the kicking legs of cancan dancers.
- The Fist Or the Butterfly
Where to start in unpicking all that I think is problematic here? Marx had it that, under communism, we will hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, criticise after dinner. We’re not any closer, and it makes survival under capitalism no easier, to believe that “the real strength /is the swoop of the butterfly wing/around the rose.” Beauty as an end in itself can be the flash of blue of a kingfisher, or a goal by Mo Salah, music by Schubert or Slum Village. Nothing of our social conditions change as a result of our aesthetic choices, save that some poke more effectively at, rather than reinforce, the common sense of the times.
What will bring us closer to that morning/afternoon/ evening of communism is collective working-class action, and in the distancing phrase “these men” we start to feel the real essence of Voss’s sense of defeat, the slow stepping away from a belief in solidarity. Repeatedly, he tells us “I want to ask him if he has….written two thousand poems/and 7 novels/like I have “ (Someday There Will Be Machine Shops Full of Roses); “on a morning like this I am not just another factory worker/but the only machinist poet on earth” (Jim Morrison Thumbs a Ride on 4TH Street) “I wish the machinists around me in this shop/could feel the joy/I feel/each morning as I wait for the poems to come to me.” (Poetry Jackpot.)
Dry, tough, funny and kind
He does it so often that it starts to seem as if Voss is not the brutally observant poet of working-class life, the machinist who documents the pain of work as survival, but the ex-academic slumming it. He does it so often, in fact, that you want to punch him out. Luckily, in fact, so does he. The “Frank and Jane” poems, which run through the book, carry a light self-mockery which undermines the pompous self-glorifying poet who they nickname “Spark Spent”, the mild-mannered machinist who reveals himself to be Poet Man.
In the “Frank and Jane” poems we get a real sense of Voss, sharing his life with someone who knows how to go toe-to-toe with him when he is “feeling especially noble”, whose “bosses screamed at her /just as much as his bosses ever screamed at him” and who reminds him that he’s not the only one who’s “had it pretty rough.” (Solidarity in Hard Times.) The “Frank and Jane” poems are like the best of Bukowski – dry, tough, but ultimately , however cold-eyed, also funny and kind. A pint of cheap whisky to the Voss who emerges from this loss of purpose to pay tribute to classic cars “thick undented chrome bumpers/gleaming in the hot LA noon sun/Van Gogh sunflowers.” (Art That Roars.)
So Voss, close to retirement, remains a great poet, but one who has seen defeat after defeat, the ongoing triumph of reaction, has seen that “In America the unions might be busted/ and socialism a dirty word” but that all you can do is drag yourself back into the ring one more time, turn up for another shift, another day:
a knee is on the neck of freedom
but the young are marching
young as Rosa Park’s feet planted firmly
in the front of the bus
wrestling his slave-master down to the ground
- Today the Young People Are Marching in the Streets
The resilience and anger in these poems feels real and true, because it feels so hard-won, because there are times it is on its knees. Voss is part-Springsteen, part-Whitman, and these are not poems of fake, easy triumphalism, but the result of a sometimes grim stocktaking, of what, over a working, writing, resisting life has been lost and won.
A machinist with a helping hand
They are written with skill and astuteness, but their essential strength is that they are political poems in the truest sense – they force you to engage with where we are and how that feels, how it sears under your skin, shows on the lines on your face. Voss, finally, still believes it is worth writing “so men and women can remember/ what these machines were like/ and how we treated the men who ran them/ so badly” (Hell in a Hardhat), however much “…at age 62/ I am so tired of flexing muscles and closing fists and/pretending/that real strength/ can’t lie in the beautiful truth of a poem.” (The Fist or the Butterfly.)
In the end, I loved this book, because when reaches for beauty it is astonishing, but also because I had to argue with it, fight against it, wrestle with it like the men in Getting a Grip fight with each other, because what it says: “if we workers don’t come together soon/ we’re all going to lose” (Getting a Grip) matters so much more than ever. Voss tells us though, that for him, for all of us if we are honest about the physical and emotional costs of our struggle, the poems come from a place that although it seemed so dark that there was no longer a shred of hope....
it was really
- Trumpet Solo for Tomorrow.
Fred Voss is an important poet, because he has given testimony about what was done to us in the course of work and the loss of work under capitalism , and how we fought back, or tried to. In doing so he has captured us as ugly/beautiful as we are and as bright with possibility as we are. As much as he is a man of words, he is, as he describes a veteran machinist in this book, more than anything:
who knew there was nothing in this world
than a flesh and blood
- A Thousand Secrets of Steel in his Fingers.
Nick Moss is an ex-prisoner, published poet, reviewer and playwright. His book "Swear Down" is published by Smokestack Books, see here.