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poetry Hanging Onto Our Selves

Forty years working as a machinist, poet Fred Voss zeroes in on the quiet danger of repetitive work and how comradeship and imagination transcend the boredom and the threat.

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Hanging Onto Our Selves

By Fred Voss

We fill egg trays with 30 identical beryllium copper electrical connectors each
stack the trays
until they reach for the machine shop ceiling
we make hundreds
thousands hundreds of thousands of identical beryllium copper electrical connectors
until they come out our ears
and we dream them in midnight dreams and seem to eat them
for breakfast but we
are each so different Merlin
sleeps in his van he parks in the Home Depot parking lot all week
after driving from the high desert over the mountains 90 miles
to work
and sings opera
at his machine until he cries then smiles like some crazy clown saint doing a comical waltz
around his machine as his fingers cut to shreds by the sharp copper connectors drip
stinking cutting oil
Ishmael
keeps swordfish swords propped against his workbench by his toolbox with the pictures
of the thousand pound swordfish he once pulled from the sea
says the sea
is his woman and talks of how he wants to cruise her with a harpoon in his fist a swordfisherman
once again as soon as he can and we worry
Ishmael will cut off his fingers reaching for electrical connectors next to razor-sharp cutters
as his eyes glaze over
and beautiful swordfish leap from the sea as he hurls the harpoon
in his mind
those shiny red-brown beryllium copper electrical connectors stack
toward the factory ceiling
each identical to within thousandth-of-an-inch blueprint dimensions
as we
stare across our machines at each other and try to be as different
as we can
Carl
still furious at the 10 years he spent caged in prison for killing a man
with his bare hands on a downtown L.A. street corner staring
at the tin walls as his machine runs until his eyes fill with tears
that never fall
as he balls his fists up and turns those tears into punches
at the air
and me
a million miles away in my mind running as far as I can from the numbing boredom
of a million identical electrical connectors to seize
these poems out of thin air
and set myself free.

Fred Voss has been a machinist for 40 years. He won the 2016 Joe Hill Labor Poetry Award. His latest poetry book, Hammers and Hearts of the Gods, was selected a Book of the Year 2009 by The Morning Star (U.K) and is available on Amazon. In 2015 he published his novel, Making America Strong.