By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; C01
Bernie and Huck eat dinner together almost every night.
Chinese usually, or that little Italian spot. Huck thinks the food's pretty unremarkable -- can't even remember the restaurant names -- but the mediocre meals-of-choice are close to the office. The office being that domed building on Capitol Hill. Theirs is a rite of steady companionship for a couple of guys from Vermont who work in this working town of Washington, but whose wives are back home.
The old friends -- the senator, Bernie Sanders, and the chief of staff, Huck Gutman -- live a Washington paradigm: a fraction of a life here, a fraction elsewhere. For some, Washington can never be a whole place. "At times for us, it can be a lonely road," Gutman says one afternoon. That road is all the more isolated because his boss is a caucus of one: the only socialist in the U.S. Congress.
Gutman, a pleasantly rumpled 66-year-old with a thick, gray Vandyke beard and a puckish glint in his eyes, is searching for the right words to explain Washington in a windowless basement restaurant of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. He pauses, starts to say something, stops and looks around. A stray senator chats quietly with an aide a few tables over. To his left, a reporter tries to extract secrets; to his right, papers are being shuffled. Conversation hovers at low-hum.
"This is a very strange world we're eating in the middle of," he confides. "It's entirely absorbed with itself. It's all so inside the Beltway. I feel the occasional need to break out of this world."
And so it is that he began lobbing poems into the e-mail inboxes of every chief of staff in the Senate. Each note offers escape through verse. Meaty, challenging, thought-provoking lines, accompanied by pages and pages of Gutman's analysis. Poetry that has nothing to do with cloture votes or amendments or motions to recommit. Poetry intended to get his BlackBerry-addicted, tunnel-visioned, life-as-a-treadmill colleagues to think about the "huge dimensions of life that get shortchanged" in the grinder that is Capitol Hill.'Fractional city'
Gutman, you see, is also an English professor, though he's on an extended leave of absence from the University of Vermont. Poetry is his way of connecting on a different plane. Despite the myriad interactions of government process, Washington often undermines deep human connection; poetry is his attempt to make the fractional city whole. Or something like that. Gutman is grasping to distill a thought. But Emily Dickinson, a poet of exquisite eloquence on loneliness and isolation, or W.H. Auden or Pablo Neruda always express it better, he says.
As if on cue, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) walks past with her chief of staff, Jane Campbell, the former mayor of Cleveland.
"Hey, Huck," Campbell calls out, "thanks for the poem. I needed that."
"See?" he says. "Times are tough. This life is tough enough . . . "
Again, he's at a loss for words. He turns to William Carlos Williams to bail him out.
"It is difficult/to get the news from poems," Gutman says. "Yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there."
"I need the poems," Gutman continues. "I need to be connected to a world other than Washington. My wife, my best friends are in Vermont." Huck got his nickname when he was a University of Vermont freshman. A friend saw him flitting around campus barefoot and was reminded of Huckleberry Finn. Almost no one calls him by his given name: Stanley. And almost no one calls his wife by her given name, Bertha. So, they're Huck and Buff.
Back home in Burlington, paintings adorn the walls -- pieces by fellow Vermonter, Phoebe Stone, and oils by his friend, Lance Richbourg. He and his wife are collectors of many things. And their passions for certain treasures help their space feel full.
In Washington, the collector's walls are mostly bare. He keeps a Spartan apartment in Mount Pleasant. The few pieces of furniture came from Ikea. Beyond that, he just keeps the essentials to sustain a Washington half-life, which in Gutman's case, includes a few books he "can't live without," works by Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, William Wordsworth, Rainer Maria Rilke and William Carlos Williams. He reads them on the Metro most mornings on his way to the Capitol.'Everybody's in transition'
He is acutely aware of the temporary nature of Washington, of its endless comings and goings, of friendships formed when someone lives here, then strained by distance when they leave. "Everybody's in transition," Gutman laments. "On Capitol Hill, young people come and they move -- other offices, K Street, to their home states."
He estimates that 85 percent of the people he worked with when he was Sanders's staffer on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee have moved on. "They were my friends," Gutman says. "Now they're gone."
Still, he hopes, there are more friends to be made -- or at least minds to open -- with each poem he tosses out. Though, to be sure, not every chief of staff can get excited about 12 pages of Gutman-ized analysis of Neruda's "Ode to Tomatoes," a jewel of verbal economy:
Unfortunately, we must
the knife sinks into living flesh,
a cool sun,
populates the salads
"Oh, wow," Gutman, ever the gushy enthusiast, writes in his analysis. "Everything has come together. The 'majestic juicy red flesh' of the tomato, the pungent onion, the fruity oil of olives, aromatic pepper, magnetic salt. 'It is the wedding/of the day.' Despite the murder several lines earlier, everything has come together."
"Lately the poems he's been sending around all have to do with food," says Michael Schwartz, chief of staff to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). "I think the man must be hungry."
Poems brought Schwartz and Gutman together, though they are polar opposites politically -- Coburn is one of the Senate's most conservative members and Sanders is surely its most liberal. Schwartz wanted Gutman to explain Auden to him. And on other matters, Schwartz could issue a few tutorials himself -- he reads 200 books a year, by his count.Bipartisan verse
This lefty-righty camaraderie among staffers is one of Capitol Hill's idiosyncrasies, which might surprise consumers of Washington reduced to sound bite, who might expect constant hostilities, rather than chumminess and cooperation. Even when their bosses spout partisan bile, it's the chiefs of staffs who must make nice to make the process go. Schwartz recalls a fellow chief of staff summing it up this way: "A lot of elbows get thrown and a lot of glass gets broken, and it's our job to clean up the mess."
Once, at a bipartisan chiefs of staff retreat in Charlottesville, Gutman stepped in to demonstrate the power of poetry. A training session had grown tense, recalls Stephen Ward, chief of staff for the Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). Gutman rose, Ward says, and announced that he felt compelled to recite a poem. The 12-liner by Philip Larkin makes liberal use of a certain four-letter word that begins with the letter "f." The chiefs of staff cracked up. Tension gone.
"He's added an interesting dimension to our life here," says Luke Albee, a former chief of staff for Vermont's senior senator, Democrat Patrick Leahy. Albee is now chief of staff for Sen. Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat. Gutman doesn't necessarily fit the profile of a Senate chief of staff, Albee notes; he's older than most, and then there's that English professor thing. "Bernie Sanders is not your average U.S. senator and Huck Gutman is not your average chief of staff," says Albee, whose professor father was a contemporary of Gutman's at the University of Vermont.
In his health committee days, Gutman established a ritual. He would start staff meetings by reading a poem, a small diversion that his colleagues came to relish (or knew to tolerate).
"We'd say, 'Okay, what's the poem today?' " says Beth Buehlmann, a committee staffer. "It was a treat."
Late one weeknight, in the midst of the heated run-up to the Senate's vote to move forward with debate on health-care reform, Ward -- Bingaman's aide -- tries to explain Gutman's poetic appeal. Never one to linger on poetry before meeting Gutman, he suddenly goes all Gutman-y.
"You got three or four minutes?" Ward says. "I want to read you a poem."
And he does.
All 61 lines.
It's a Zbigniew Herbert work about five soldiers on the night before their execution. On first reading, Ward keyed on the lines about the horror of the execution:
Before the bullet reaches its destination
the eye will perceive the flight of the projectile
the ear record the steely rustle
the nostrils will be filled with biting smoke
a petal of blood will brush the palate.
Then he talked to Gutman, who took away something entirely different, remembering most the lines recounting the soldiers talking "of girls/of fruits/of life."
"Huck talked about the richness of life," Ward recalls. "For Huck, it's that passion for every moment."In search of more fans
Incongruently, one reader Gutman can't seem to reach is his buddy, Sanders. They have been friends for years: Gutman was among those who formed the core of Sanders's early backers on his unlikely ascendancy from activist to Burlington mayor, then on to represent the Green Mountain State as its lone representative in the House, and now as junior senator. The pals even co-authored Sanders's 1997 book, "Outsider in the House." But their literary mind-meld essentially stops there. Even though they "talk for hours, talk about everything," Gutman still hasn't managed to turn Sanders into a poetry fan.
In a Senate hallway one afternoon, Sanders scoots away when asked if he likes any of the poems Gutman sends around. "We've got your e-mail, right?" he says. But no e-mail ever arrives.
"You don't think of Bernie as a guy who sits around reading poetry," Albee says, dispensing with the usual Capitol Hill formalities and invoking the first-name shorthand Vermonters use for their senators. "He's more prose than poetry."
Still, Gutman always finds others to enlighten. Little by little, he becomes a kind of Capitol pied piper of poetry. His poetry e-mail list is approaching 1,500 recipients, including many former students and literary thinkers from around the world. ("You will publish the address, so people can sign up, won't you?" Gutman says one afternoon. Sure, Huck. It's http://list.uvm.edu/archives/poetry.html .) He hands out copies of a book of Neruda's poetry as gifts. ("Oh yes," Ward says, "he gave me one.") He chats about Seamus Heaney with the wife of a senator at the State of the Union address.
In a Dirksen stairwell one afternoon, Gutman tells a colleague that he'd met the man's son, who is thinking about going into teaching, and talked a little about the academic life.
"I'll have a beer with him," Gutman tells his colleague. "Without you!"
As the Senate resumes its session, without the holidays to enforce good tidings, these serendipities make returning from somewhere else to Washington in winter just a few degrees warmer. All because of connections made through poetry -- one eloquent unsolicited e-mail at a time in the province of incomprehensible jargon and gobbledygook.
"Here we have a different way of speaking," Gutman says. "They talk about large questions, about what underlies the policy or the direction of the nation. Not so much about their interests, what's going on in their inner lives. I go back to Emily Dickinson."
And he is reciting again:
We introduce ourselves
To Planets and to Flowers
But with ourselves