tales of south philly by ed galing. Milwaukee, WI: four-sep publications, 2000.
Reviewed by Judith Barisonzi
You don’t have to come from South Philadelphia (a.k.a. south philly) to enjoy ed galing’s chapbook, because you have known down-and-out, striving, violent, respectable communities like it. And even if you haven't, ed tells you about them, with the specific, intimate detail that creates a world. No evasions here—there are roaches in the mattress and boys hiding their erections at street dances. There are the mafia and welfare, but people sweep their sidewalks, and women “like their /picture windows/ showin some kinda/statue like the virgin/mary.” ed remembers sucking on slivers of ice, “enjoyin the sharpness of cold,” and letting streetcars run over a penny in the street: “this made an excellent slug…one that fit inside the phone booth/at the corner drug store.“
Anger isn’t the tone of ed’s reminiscences. Nostalgia plays a big part, and so does pride: “these are my people and they/got degrees in life/and nobody in south philly/would have it any/other way.” At the end of a poem, there is usually an ironic twist, turning an otherwise bland statement into an incisive comment on life near the bottom. For instance, after ed describes his minimum wage jobs, he concludes “after a while I just gave/up and joined the army”; the poem is entitled “plush jobs.”
Ok, you don’t have to come from ed‘s world, but if your ancestral roots are deep in South Philly—as mine are—then reading his poems holds an added pleasure. There are the street names you know so well, the trolley tracks, the foods you can still taste at the back of your mouth: "pretzels we got/hoagies we got/steak sandwiches/we got/ solidarity we got." The Mummers Parade on New Year’s Day is THE big Philadelphia tradition, and here is ed telling you: “the damn Mardi Gras in/New Orleans had nuthin on us.” Like anyone else from Philadelphia, ed, I’m right there with you!
The poems are marred by the occasional cliché: a degree in hard knocks, a baptism of fire. But sometimes ed gets it right: the city “stretched out/like a woolen blanket.“ A little more searching for just the right image would make more of the poems click into focus.
But my only real complaint about the book is the sloppy proofreading. The very first page, for instance, has no less than five errors, typos like “troud” for “proud” or “alung” for “along“. Later on, I have to work a bit to interpret “nevereleaborate” as “never elaborate.” ed’s poems deserve better than this.
So enjoy the poems, and if you’re ever in Philadelphia, eat a hoagie and think of ed galing.
Judy Barisonzi has been a Wisconsin resident since 1966, and she now lives among the lakes and woods of northwest Wisconsin. Semi-retired from teaching English at the University of Wisconsin Colleges, she gives workshops in creative writing and memoir writing, participates in several local writing groups, and publishes poems in local and national magazines.