The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of our Hand by Fred Voss


Image by Franklin Hunting*

To paraphrase an old REM song, “It’s the end of work as we know it. But I feel fine.” In the not-too-distant future, this will be the end game for politicians. Although there is a continuance of, and even in the case of President Agent Orange, a revival of the policy of creating more jobs, the reality is that under the current capitalist trajectory, there aren’t enough to go round. We are already seeing it with the rise in automation and the precariat and gig economy; people are scraping around for part-time jobs that are unsustainable economically. Politicians will have to find ways of keeping people happy (however that is defined) outside of work.

Some commentators are beginning to write about the post-work economy and how today’s politicians are wrong in their promise to create more jobs. In a provocative essay, “Fuck Work!” the historian James Livingston claims that the belief in work as a central factor of what it means to be human, “has become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills – unless of course you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.” Similarly, Yuvi Noah Hariri describes this situation in a more apocalyptic fashion, “The new longevity and super-human qualities are likely to be the preserve of the techno super-rich, the masters of the data universe. Meanwhile, the redundancy of labour, supplanted by efficient machines, will create an enormous “useless class”, without economic or military purpose.”

Fred02The poem, The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of our Hand by Fred Voss, laments the state of the capitalist economy at a place he has worked for over thirty years; even though “it’s a pretty good job we have /considering how tough it is out there in so many other factories /in this era of the busted union and the beaten-down worker /but paradise? /and we walk away toward our machines ready for another 10 /              hours inside tin walls /as outside perfect blue waves roll onto black sand Hawaiian / beaches /and billionaires raise martini glasses.” But in response to an ironic comment (“Another day in paradise,”) from a workmate, he asks the question: “why not a job /joyous as one of these poems I write /a job where each turn of a wrench /each ring of a hammer makes my soul sing out glad for each /drop of sweat /rolling down my back because the world has woken up and /stopped worshiping money.” Everyone needs a sense of worth, even in a mundane job, where they don’t feel exploited and undervalued. For as Fred beautifully writes, [there is] “nothing more noble /than bread on the table and a steel cutter’s grandson /reaching for the moon and men /dropping time cards into time clocks and stepping up to their /machines /like the sun /couldn’t rise /without them.” The challenge now is create a sense of this nobility both inside and outside the workplace.

This poem comes from a new pamphlet by Fred Voss published by Culture Matters & Manifesto Press, and supported by the trades union, Unite.

38 years ago Fred Voss walked into a steel mill and put on a hardhat and picked up a torch and a wrench and then a pen to write of souls sold in the job market, lives fed into time clocks, men owned and ordered like they were  hardly men at all, by bosses and owners too good to shoulder a load or grab a pickaxe, as the earth is covered with concrete and the trees and tigers die. Fred Voss looks for the day when all this will be changed when women and men with dirt on their hands and gold in their souls will no longer be treated like children but given the power and respect the true makers of this world deserve. Voss has published three books of poems with Bloodaxe: Goodstone(1991), Carnegie Hall with Tin Walls (1998) and Hammers and Hearts of the Gods (2009).

The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of our Hand

“Another day in paradise,”
a machinist says to me as he drops his time card into the time
     clock and the sun
over the San Gabriel mountains
and we laugh
it’s a pretty good job we have
considering how tough it is out there in so many other factories
in this era of the busted union and the beaten-down worker
but paradise?
and we walk away toward our machines ready for another 10
     hours inside tin walls
as outside perfect blue waves roll onto black sand Hawaiian
and billionaires raise martini glasses
sailing their yachts to Cancun
but I can’t help thinking
why not paradise
why not a job
where I feel like I did when I was 4
out in my father’s garage
joyously shaving a block of wood in his vise with his plane
as a pile of sweet-smelling wood shavings rose at my feet
and my father smiled down at me and we held
the earth and the stars in the palm of our hand
why not a job
joyous as one of these poems I write
a job where each turn of a wrench
each ring of a hammer makes my soul sing out glad for each
     drop of sweat
rolling down my back because the world has woken up and
     stopped worshiping money
and power and fame
and because presidents and kings and professors and popes and
     Buddhas and mystics
and watch repairmen and astrophysicists and waitresses and
     undertakers know
there is nothing more important than the strong grip and will of
carving steel
like I do
nothing more important than Jorge muscling a drill through
     steel plate so he can send money
to his mother and sister living under a sacred mountain in
nothing more noble
than bread on the table and a steel cutter’s grandson
reaching for the moon and men
dropping time cards into time clocks and stepping up to their
like the sun
couldn’t rise
without them.


[*Image by Franklin Hunting]

At the Border, 1979 by Choman Hardi

In 1990 I took a one way flight to Istanbul with three friends. We were going to return to England by train. This was just after the fall of communism and was my first experience of crossing borders in Eastern Europe, and is something I reflect on regularly but of course with recent events, the memories surface once again. As British citizens, the only time we had trouble at a border was arriving in Istanbul with no return ticket. The immigration officials were perplexed; they had little experience of people coming to Turkey without a return, and we confused them further when saying we were leaving to travel through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia (as it was still then).

hussein ceausescuThe most notable event of our trip by far was Romania. We reached the border at midnight. When the train stopped, two men entered our carriage and sat down. They turned out to be Iraqi Kurds. Two Romanian guards came in soon after to check our passports. They had only a cursory interest in us as their appetite was for grilling the two men. The four of them looked at each other in silence for a moment, then one guard looked at their passports. He looked up and simply said, “Saddam Hussein,” then laughed at them. The Kurds took it on the chin, and one of them jabbed back, “Ceausescu,” and laughed himself. We were beyond nervous. The four men went silent again, until the guard handed back their passports, said “Saddam Hussein,” once more then left. There is no surprise that the two tyrants met a number of times, and apparently Ceausescu’s Romania supplied uniforms to the Iraqi army in a deal brokered by the Americans.

Choman Hardi’s classic poem, At the Border, 1979 reflects her personal experience as a five year old girl, crossing a border with her family into their ‘homeland’ of Kurdistan; ‘It is your last check-in point in this country!’/We grabbed a drink -/soon everything would taste different.’ But she shows us how borders are a construct, lines drawn by colonists and dictators. So there is irony in this ‘everything would taste different’. “The autumn soil continued on the other side/with the same colour, the same texture./It rained on both sides of the chain.” The persecution of Kurds continued in Iraq and eventually Choman’s family had to move once again fourteen years later, this time to the UK. I really like the fact that for all of the history of conflict and migration she experienced, Choman says that she first started writing poetry when she fell in love; “her early poems are much more ‘flowery’ because she ‘belonged to the Kurdish tradition and engaged with [her] poems in an intensely emotional way.’ Learning to write poems in English, she says, has given her a measure of detachment “which is essential when writing about painful, personal and sensitive subjects.”

The Kurdish people, spread across a number of countries, continue to be shunned by powers in the region; they are one of the most poignant examples of how borders separate people, of how lines on paper divide lives on the ground. We see it also with the Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, and imprisoned in their own ‘designated’ areas within Israeli borders. All of this lies at the heart of what we see today with the refugee crisis; a crisis made explicit to us by the European situation but is far worse in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Hardi_Choman (1)Born in Kurdistan in 1974 and raised in Iraq and Iran, Choman Hardi came to the UK in 1993 and studied at Queen’s College Oxford, University College London and the University of Kent in Canterbury. A poet, writer and academic researcher, she has published three collections of poetry in Kurdish and her first English collection, Life for Us, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2004. Her eagerly awaited new collection by Bloodaxe, Considering the Women, is published on October 22nd, and Choman will be appearing at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in November, where there will be a series of readings on Poetry and Freedom. (more…)

Factotums by Fred Voss

The author Toni Morrison began writing because of a void she felt in the books she read, even in the time of rapid change in the 1960s. “Things were moving too fast in the early 1960s-70s… it was exciting but it left me bereft…. There were no books about me, I didn’t exist in all the literature I had read… this person, this female, this black did not exist centre-self.” I have felt this myself with the majority of the literature I have read over the past thirty years. As I have commented previously, the working classes, irrespective of gender or ethnic background, have rarely been portrayed in anything but overly dramatic caricatures. It is of course why I started Proletarian Poetry, but it also haunts my own writing as I try not to mimic that which I am critical of.

Both writers and readers will question who their writing is for. I think both will initially say it is for themselves; I know I write to help me think clearly and improve my mood. But of course we also write because we feel we have something to say, a unique take on something (if the writing is good that is) and then possibly we are writing about a group of people who are either neglected in literature or misrepresented.

Fred02This was certainly Toni Morrison’s reason, and also in the case of Fred Voss’ poem, Factotums, where he tells of a workmate who ‘catches’ him reading, so he turns, “Bukowski’s Factotum/to the side so the machinist can’t see the cover.” The machinist himself has only ever read one book, “He was probably forced to read Of Mice and Men in High School/told how important it was/made to hate it/like castor oil.” I know with my own sons, they often feel the same way about books being foisted upon them at school. (more…)

Speechless by Jacob Sam-La Rose

Where were you when….? This is often a question that roots us to a place, a memory where the global meets the local. For my parent’s generation it was either the end of the Second World War or when Kennedy was shot (I was probably asleep in my pram). For my generation it was when Thatcher was elected, fall of the Berlin Wall, or when Princess Diana died (I think I was asleep for that one as well). And for today’s generation it must be 9/11 or when Simon Cowell appeared on the Simpsons. But of course there are many less tragic memories that take us back in time.

IMG_2104-Sam BurnettIn Jacob Sam-La Rose’s epic five part poem Speechless, he takes us through the stages of his life with references to major events (both good and bad), linking them to his own family’s history and those that affected him personally. It begins in 1950: ‘Uruguay beats Brazil 2-1/to win the World Cup, China invades Tibet’. In Guyana his mother who ‘has a voice like ripe Jamoon wine‘ is trying to find her freedom in the shadow of her Father who is a Police Sergeant and whose ‘word is law’ and on the wall is ‘a poster/proclaiming that Britain needs you.’ (more…)

Diagnosis: ‘Londonism’ by Rishi Dastidar

“Capitalism has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities. Capitalism has agglomerated population, centralised means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands.”

karl marx london

Karl Marx was 195 on May 5th last year, and wrote these words albeit using the word ‘bourgeoisie’ instead of capitalism. John Lanchester used this trick when quoting Marx to show how prescient he was in describing the structure of capitalism and the way in which it changes the landscape (I sometimes think that capitalists understand Marx better than Marxists). (more…)

Book Review: The Hundred Years’ War: Modern War Poems edited by Neil Astley

modern war poems‘There is nothing one man will not do to another.’ (The Visitor, Carolyn Forché)

On 7th January 1915 the war in Europe was at a stalemate. Soldiers were still dying for an unknown cause but the papers in the UK at least, were headlined with floods that covered much of the country. On the following day, the future UK Prime Minister David Lloyd George, in response to the war not ‘being over by Christmas’, said that half a million new volunteers should not be ‘thrown away in futile enterprises’ and by ‘this intermittent flinging …. against impregnable positions’.

‘Tumbling over hills, likes waves of the sea/Staggering on, attracted magnetically by Death.’ (At the Beginning of the War, Peter Baum, 1915) (more…)