Jennifer Atkinson

Notes Toward a Treatise on the Atlantic Periwinkle
April 8, 2014 Atkinson Jennifer

Notes Toward a Treatise on the Atlantic Periwinkle


None knows the song devoted to winkles.

None knows which is named for which—the flower for the littoral snail or the snail for the literal flower.

All periwinkles are drawn toward the sea by its in-sucking music and drawn to the shore by its salt taffy and sulfur perfume.  Trapped between desire and desire, they live on the edge, unable to crawl into happiness or happiness.


The script they leave in the sand—indecipherable mystery!—surely will reward its translator with a Rosetta Stone key to the ocean’s secrets.


The periwinkle has authored a number of words in its nine and a half centuries of relationship with humans. Its first verb, coined despite its eyeless body, wink, once described the glance of sun on choppy seas.  Later it was taken up by humans, personified, and attributed more widely.


The winkle’s second verb went further, beyond not just its body but its intertidal imaginings, beyond its life, beyond life itself, to its afterlife: winkle, to extricate from a twisty tight spot, as with an unbent paperclip.   You have to admire the unflappable calm that lets the periwinkle imagine itself unspooled from its shell on a dull pin.


The oldest of periwinkles, a female Methuselah, is ten.  She breeds year-round when the climate allows, producing broods of more than ten thousand.


The tiny, tireless periwinkle, most likely comes to New England shores as a stowaway in a merchant ship’s stone ballast, grazes the cord grass and combs the slick lowtide mud for algae.  Entirely without malicious intent, entirely without greed (what winkle sets itself above another winkle?),  the species is nonetheless accused of destroying the native American balance. 


How to punish the poor periwinkle for living where it lives?  Who will round up the bluish littorinoidea and sort the natives from the alien snails?


Blessed is the hermit who takes refuge in a periwinkle shell!

Jennifer Atkinson is the author of three collections of poetry, The Dogwood Tree, which won the University of Alabama Poetry Prize, and The Drowned City, which won the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize and, most recently, Drift Ice from Etruscan Press. Her individual poems and her nonfiction have appeared in Poetry, Field, The Yale Review, The New England Review, Threepenny Review, Shenandoah, The Iowa Review, Image, Witness, and elsewhere. Both her poetry and her nonfiction have been awarded the Pushcart Prize.