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Photograph of Charles IsleyCharles P. Isley

Hoosier Connection: Charles P. Isley moved to Gary, Indiana, as a child and spent much of his youth exploring the dunes and beaches around the southern tip of Lake Michigan.

Works Discussed: "Duneland Legend," "Duneland Symphony," "Benison," "Indiana," "Potawatomi Tribe," "The Calumet"

Charles Isley was born in Oxford, Ohio, but moved to Gary, Indiana, at the age of two. Though he was not born in Indiana, he spent much of his youth in Gary where he attended Emerson High School and Gary College, now known as Indiana University Northwest.

Isley wrote fondly of the shores at the southern tip of Lake Michigan in his two short collections of poetry: Dune Song and Dune Trail. In the introduction to Dune Song, Isley explains his connection with the dunes: “The dunes held forth that serenity of ages quietly listening to the life pulsing beneath the calm, the rhythm of the seasons. I became aware of how the wind, weather and dunes interact, and a beauty I had never known before” (3). Each of the 55 poems and the single story featured in Dune Song describe Isley’s memories of the beaches, dunes, plants, and wildlife that he encountered at Lake Michigan during his childhood.

Dune Song begins with an allegory entitled “Duneland Legend” that explains why the “Northwind” blows across the lake toward the dunes. According to Isley’s folklore, the wind was enamored with a slender and beautiful pine tree that grew on the dunes. The pine tree teased the Northwind by dancing in its breezes, but the dunes warned the tree that if she continued to dance with the wind, it would someday kill her. When the pine tree did not listen to the dunes and continued to dance in the wind, the sands slowly began to drift down the slopes of the dune and the tree began to panic. The Northwind tried to save the dune by blowing at it harder, but the sands only drifted faster, and soon the dune was leveled and the tree was uprooted. Now the Northwind continues to blow across the dunes, looking for another tree as beautiful as the pine tree.

Similar to “Duneland Legend,” the poem “Duneland Symphony” also personifies the elements of nature:

The seagulls pause to add their eerie cry,
Whispering of sands among the grasses,
Soft breezes in the pine trees gently sigh,
Calling to each bird or beast that passes
To join the great diversity of tunes
That echo through the fastness of the dunes. (17)

Like “Duneland Legend” and many other poems in Dune Song, “Duneland Symphony” tells of the sands, winds, and birds that give the land life and energy with their “sighs” and “cries” that seem to sing across the dunes.

Many other poems in the collection such as “Lullaby,” “Dune Pine,” and “Benison” also tell of the songs and movements of the land. In “Benison” Isley describes how a child might interact with the elements of the dunes:

Follow the trail the moonbeams make
Over the sand into the lake;

Run where the grey gull’s silver flight
Fades with the dusk to sullen night;

Swim where the crystal waters lave,
Ride the crest of a breaking wave;

Play, when the jolly, high winds blow,
Tug of war with the undertow;

Then when jubilant play is done,
Lie outstretched in the warming sun –

Absorb the joy that came your way
One summer on a sunny day. (32)

Near the end of the collection, Isley breaks from the duneland imagery and writes of his fondness for the environment of Indiana in the poem appropriately titled “Indiana”:

Tall timbers spread broad arms to shelter game,
Bright crystal waters bathe the shifting sand.

Where song birds fling their strident symphonies
Along the rolling hills and rocky ledges
Across the open fields, among the trees
Where lilies bloom as game birds stalk the sedges.

Though Isley was not a Hoosier all his life, he recognized the beauty of Indiana’s environment, and as he expressed in the final stanza of “Indiana,” he felt drawn to the state’s appeal:

Oh, when a “Hoosier” heeds his country’s call
Or other lands with offering of manna
Tempt him away from native garden wall,
He hears the constant whisper – “INDIANA”! (55)

Isley’s Dune Trail features more poems about the land and wildlife of the Indiana dunes. However, unlike Dune Song, Dune Trail includes several poems that emphasize the relationship between the people who have traveled the dunes both in the past and present. The poem “Potawatomi Trail” tells of the Potawatomi, a Native America Tribe that lived in northern Indiana before colonization. In the poem, the narrator recognizes that he walks along the same trail that the Potawatomi had walked centuries before him:

I feel the presence of the ghosts
Of every man who traveled here.

The narrator further meditates on the connection between past and present that he experiences through the environment:

I pick the spot where reeds grow lush
Where sinewed hunters bronzed and tall
Lurked silently in boat, on raft
To slay unwary water-fowl.

These thoughts I know while strolling on
The softness of the yellow sand;
I’m not alone—for with these ghosts
I share the beauties of this land. (13)

Isley further reflects on the past in “The Calumet,” a poem about how peace has always ensued on the duneland:

Battles raged and warriors died
To the East—to the West—
To the South;
Pioneers were massacred—
Red warriors slew each other;
Many scalp-locks
Hung about the thighs
Of screaming, hideously painted red men.

Not so where the tall dunes roam—
Where the broad, placid river
Blended slowly
With the clear waters of the lake.
This was peaceful country
Where many tribes followed, unmolested,
The broad trail by the river.

The dunes and shoreline provided a solace from the warring Native American tribes. The next stanza of the poem leaps to the present in which the dunes and shoreline still provide solace, but today the dunes provide a natural solace from the “smoke of Industry”:

Today, though many of the broad marshes
Have vanished,
The flow of the river is reversed
And the region hovers
Under the pall of the smoke of Industry,
There are still some spots
Where the trail winds, unchanged—
Where the marshes are broad
And the muskrat builds his hut.

Isley loves the duneland because of its promise of escape from the threats of a violent world. The dunes are nature’s sanctuary, one of the few places where peace has always existed.


Isley, Charles P. Dune Song. East Chicago, IN: Hypatia Press, 1982.

Isley, Charles P. Dune Trail. East Chicago, IN: Hypatia Press, 1949.

Thompson, Donald. "Isley, Charles P." Indiana Authors and Their Books, 1917-1966. Crowfordsville, IN: Wabash College, 1974. 318.


Charles Isley Portrait courtesy of the Isley family.