From squalid soil a shriveled sapling sprang,
Which grew into a convoluted tree,
Whose listless leaves from blackened branches hang,
And twisted shape compels the birds to flee.
It gives no shade or succor to the tired,
And bears no fruits or flowers on its limbs.
Abhorrence and disquiet it inspires,
Except in those who offer it a hymn.
For though the tree fell many seasons past,
In falling, it revealed its fortitude,
For fire, disease, and drought did it outlast,
And by its loss, the forest was renewed.
And in the spring, when sunshine melts the snows,
Within its limbs, a silver lily grows.
I first encountered Libby Weber because of a shared interest in Snape. Over years of enjoying her writing, I was impressed by her deftness with poetry and the consistently high bars she challenged herself to clear, just for fun. I don’t know how long it takes most people to write a sonnet, but I’m not sure I could turn out a half-decent one in a day, and I certainly couldn’t keep up the exercise for a month, let alone an entire year!
Are they good sonnets? Yes. There’s a wide range, as you would expect from an annual. Highlights include Weber’s irrepressible wordplays, nonsense, and several outbursts on the nature of dogs (of the “We Rate Dogs” school of canine critique), but also instructive pedagogical sonnets, literary allusions, and straightforward emotion.
The entry for January 9, Snape’s birthday, is one of the most deeply traditional sonnets in the volume, following Shakespearean form. It’s somber and steadfast in tone, like cello music. The poem moves from a landscape view of stunted life in the first quatrain to a closer approach in the second. The last word of the second quatrain, “hymn,” is where the possibility of magic song enters the poem.
Hymns. What hymns are offered to Snape? “Severus…please.” “The bravest man I ever knew.” “My light in the darkness.” “Always.”
In the tenth line comes the turn: “In falling, it revealed its fortitude.” Weber has it easier than J.K. Rowling did. Rowling was under strain to stretch out the revelation of Snape’s true nature until the very end of her saga, but Weber has the luxury of writing about a finished story and is free to schedule the revelation to come two-thirds through, with room afterward for recovery. The Snape of Rowling’s books died with no guarantee that he would be understood or remembered at all, except to be cursed; that’s part of what made him brave. But Snape as a character in the Harry Potter literary phenomenon is composed two-thirds of irascible story, one-third revelation and ensuing reconsideration.
The final couplet is perfectly proportioned for the Shakespearean form, which can sometimes feel pat or rushed. But here, it’s not a conclusion, just a naturally brief and quiet coda. “Silver” is perfect, not only an allusion to the silver of Snape’s doe Patronus, but also the color of solitary strength in Potterverse, as opposed to the gold of emotional connection with another. The limbs may be twisted and dead, but they create trust, a space pure enough to hold a perennial.
Risk a Verse by Slytherin alumna Libby Weber, Burrito Books, 406 pages, $19.95.