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Hammers and Hearts of the Gods

"Only in a machine shop/can men bond by telling each other to go fuck themselves," Fred Voss has written. It is an aperçu that makes for
a singularly harsh poetics. One might wonder why a bookish UCLA graduate student would drop out in favour of a life of physical drudgery in California's steel mills and factories among uneducated, often illiterate men. It is because, as Voss writes in "Herman Melville Works on Machine #11", "there's more literature/under their dirty fingernails/than in all the disser­tations/on earth".

Voss portrays a world of hydraulic presses and cutting torches, blast furnaces and jackhammers, ground-down workers and bullying bosses. There are warm portraits of the "grunting horny bestial men" beside whom he works. For all his ignorance and fear, his prejudices and unblinking patriotism, the working man, Voss knows, is what literature is made of: "his walk/ his whistle/the way he leans against his machine-table . . . /smiles/a 3-tooth smile with black machine grease all over his arms".

Voss began to chart his experiences of heavy industry in his first collection, Goodstone (1991), which made of the factory floor a microcosm
of America. Here, too, he is able to travel the world in the machine shop "by just leaning my ear toward the machine next to mine and a man/telling his story". But conditions in this latest collection, tempered by economic depression, immigrant labour and globalised markets, are harsher and more insecure, with the threat of unemployment and homelessness ever present. Here, "reality is blueprint-clear/ and concrete-hard/and carved out of steel".

Yet there is still space for celebration, and nowhere more so than in the title poem, which hymns the triumphs of manual labour. Voss's imagination carves a heroic landscape within the factory's tin walls, where "we rowed/with Ulysses/through the smashing-together rocks" and built the Brooklyn Bridge and the railroads that span the continent; a place where, with "our hammers/our wrenches/our hearts/ . . . the universe/was made".

The politics of the poems is never far below the surface, and is sometimes offered up too straight. Comparing the working conditions of one job cutting parts for a merchant ship with another making military helicopters, he asks:

why do they treat us like dogs for
letting a man breathe
then pamper us like royalty
when we are helping people
get killed?

Elsewhere, however, with the shadow of Iraq or the 11 September 2001 attacks looming large, poetic and political elements are better fused. Unable to ignore the uses to which his work will be put, he is beset by images of the child who will be killed by the gun barrel he is fashioning, the young men who will jump from the army transport planes he helps to build. A smart grammatical turn in the final lines of "Bread and Blood" gives what could be stodgily polemical an extra edge:

but I can't let go of that bomb bay door handle
in my hand
those bomb bay doors are open
and in one split second
the bombs will drop
the bread on my table

Away from the factory floor, Voss offers us vignettes of domestic strife and affection. In "Always Ready to Grate Carrots", the prota­gonist reads and daydreams while his wife gets on with the household chores. As ever, Voss is acute about the self-defeating complacencies
of masculine psychology: "When a man is as absolutely certain as Frank is/that he can do anything/what need is there to do/anything?" As in the factory poems, nothing is sentimentalised. The language is plain and unvarnished, the lines unevenly broken into a kind of patterning of everyday speech, which yields an affectless honesty that renders his characters with a grubby, work-stained dignity.

Voss's antecedents are clear enough in his style and concerns - Céline and Whitman, Hemingway and the Beats but, above all, the laureate of LA's skid row, Charles Bukowski, whose broken metre and engagement with what he called "trashcan lives" find clear echoes in Voss's work. But these protagonists - Mexicans and Vietnamese, macho boors and family men - are still a rung above Bukowski's drunks, deadbeats and whores. This collection shows that, though hardly less desperate, they are managing to hold their lives together, against all the odds.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London