Matthea Harvey’s “The Crowds Cheered As Gloom Galloped Away” resides in her second full-length collection, the wonderfully-titled Sad Little Breathing Machine. It is a poem about ponies, sadness, and the inversion of cognitive behavioral therapy. It is a poem about pills, the surprising delicateness of rodents’ palates, and the psychological benefits of a day at the races. A weird, exquisitely-detailed Joseph Cornell box of a poem, “The Crowds Cheered” opens up on a pharmacological utopia/dystopia where sadness has finally been banished.
“Everyone was happier,” because we have won The War on Feelings, but we are still uneasy, we want, we need, to know where the sadness has gone. We just can’t accept that the outside problems were solved by inside methods. It’s the world that’s effed up, man, not our neurotransmitters. In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the bounty hunter Rick Deckard and his wife get in a fight over whether the wife should set up her emotion-altering machine. Deckard tells his wife to dial up Setting 3, the desire to make use of the emotion-alternating machine. The wife yells back:
I can’t dial a setting that stimulates my cerebral cortex into wanting to dial! If I don’t want to dial, I don’t want to dial that most of all, because then I will want to dial, and wanting to dial is right now the most alien drive I can imagine; I just want to sit here on the bed and stare at the floor.”
Thus, our conundrum. We have the means to feel better, but we can’t quite allow ourselves to make use of these means. When confronted with medicine, our brains suddenly turn into strict materialists, overly concerned with the real, the natural, and the pure. Artifice becomes the devil incarnate.
Cue the tiny sugarwater-drinking ponies.
The ponies provide tangible, schema-shifting “proof” for our brains that the problem is real, is measurable, is something we can discuss with our outside voices. Our gloom is separate, is othered. Ergo, conquering our gloom is now the most natural thing in the world. Satisfied, our brains set themselves to Three on their own accord.
The secret to the ponies’ efficacy is twofold: (1) They are made of flesh and blood and (2) They are itty bitty widdle things. The miniaturizing of the ponies helps us to develop a sense of proportion. Our feelings, while serious, are toy-sized when compared to the World Writ Large. When asked to describe our emotions, we invoke mountains, solar systems, or bottomless black pits. We quote from The Tree of Life or Anna Karenina. But Harvey’s ponies gently discourage such extravagances; their diminutiveness is the opposite of and/or the anecdote to this egomaniacal epicness we tend towards when left without a reference point.
Now that our anxieties have been scaled down to trinkets, we can leave them to the rats and the squirrels. Over the timespan of Harvey’s prose poem, our worldview becomes less-complicatedly chemically enhanced. Our brains become more creative, we can imagine ourselves into the comforting and soft-edged pill-world without the assistance of shiny-maned props.
However, some superstitions remain. Freed from our dependence on golden livestock, we still find ourselves inadvertently making the sign of the cross every time we walk thru our local pharmacy’s sliding doors. The uneasiness is unavoidable, the world continues to be really effed up, man. We can gild up our neurotransmitters, but some of that discomfort still remains. Sometimes, we gather at the race tracks, dressed in our most creeptastic trench coats and scuffed up shoes, our packets filled to the brim with sugar and carrot-flavored pellets.