The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Bowen Theory Concepts Reflected in Poetry

Note: Erik Thompson, MA, Director of the Vermont Center for Family Studies (VCFS) submitted to The Systems Thinker, two wonderful pieces of brief poetry, which he says adorned this year’s final presentation by a senior trainee Kammy Kelton, MA, a family therapist from Waterbury, Vermont.  Both poems are about family.  One is titled “Siblings” by Kammy Kelton’s daughter, Grace Kelton Butler.  The other is “The Bridge” by Dorothy Moffatt and spans the generations, (Moffatt, Time for Remembrance, 1994, page 21).  Both poems touch on the mysterious balance between differentiation and connection. We invite our readers to share with us their thoughts on how these poems resonate with concepts in Bowen theory.



By Grace Kelton Butler

We are on that river, the Colorado whose mud still stains my clothing.  We are deep in the canyon sitting beneath a waxing moon.  The old man I have been icy to, the rusty guide, looks from my brother to me and back again.

He asks, “What do you do with a sister like that?”

Simon pauses and says, “Get out of her way.”

The old man laughs.

All at once I don’t know whether to rise from my chair to knee Simon or to hug him because his words mean vastly different things to him and this gray-bearded guide.

I take a swig from my beer, I slouch and look as surly as possible.  I grin at Simon because there we were, not in each other’s way, neither of us lagging behind.  Side by side under the burgeoning stars we were two siblings, our hair stiff with river silt, looking through similarly tinted lenses to the world.  A glint of home in this foreign place.


The Bridge

By Dorothy Moffatt

The way I walk

I see my mother walking.

My feet secure

And firm upon the ground.

The way I talk

I hear my daughter talking

And hear my mother’s echo

In the sound.

The way she thought

I find myself now thinking.

The generations linking

In a firm continuation of mind

The bridge of immortality

I am walking—

The voice before me echoing behind.



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125 Comments on "Bowen Theory Concepts Reflected in Poetry"

  • People who become passionate about family systems theory tend to have a strong fascination with family relationships. Our impulse is to find the glinty nuggets in the long silty river of family, discover how to pan for them, and then help others do it. We want sustaining and satisfying family relationships that hit that elusive balance between “safely connected” and “exuberantly free”. Dr. Michael E. Kerr called it “adequate emotional contact with adequate emotional space”. There is a scientific theory that explores this called Bowen theory.

    So a poem about staying out of each other’s way intrigues us.

    Grace Kelton Butler’s poem begins with what we would call a triangle. A trail guide asks a brother:

    “What do you do with a sister like that?”

    The guide seems to have a light triangling touch. Has he found the sister annoying? Probably, he has at moments. But he is nimble enough to put it out there, using a tried and true method. He tosses his emotion over to an interconnected third party, in this case her brother. If the guide were really pissed, he wouldn’t do it that way. He’d bitch behind her back to someone who doesn’t like her.

    If you find triangles fascinating, (and who doesn’t?) you are paying attention to this story. How annoying is this gal?

    The brother handles the triangling with some skill. He puts meaning into the banter.

    “Get out of her way.”

    Connected but free?

    He touches upon the universal dance of siblings. Once, at the Bowen Center’s annual symposium, I saw a video of a mother hyena giving birth in a lab. The loving researchers had taken good care of her, and had never witnessed this before, because hyenas give birth in dens deep below the African plain. To our amazement, a 3 foot tube distended from hyena mommy, and we saw two pups slowly wiggle down it toward birth. (They always birth twins.) This is apparently how it happens down in the cave. First one, then a second blind hyena pup emerged from the end of this translucent, biological mommy tunnel.

    What do you think they did first? They attacked each other.

    Back in Colorado, the potentially annoying sister in the poem observes that she and her brother have figured out how to walk “not in each other’s way, neither of us lagging behind”. A pretty trick for such hyenas.

    I like “similarly”. Siblings are so similar and yet forever different. Blood is thicker than water, but there is always some water in it, all the way to the end. All too often the blood seems all washed out, or boils over.

    Finally we learn that they are, for each other, “A glint of home in this foreign place.”

    As with the silt, the “glint” grounds this Eve and her bro in nature. Cinematic, it locates the conversation on a lovely earth, thank the stars. It puts a shining floor beneath these shady sibling trees. It hints about how all this might go.

    The earth is a foreign place. But we seem to have found something glinting in a strange river. Something we can keep when parents leave the stage.

    Erik Thompson

  • Sydney Reed says

    I like the use of poetry to talk about family. The subtle meanings in the phrases that one needs to think creatively about remind me of the comments that Bowen would sometimes make…. I often didn’t understand them at face value but I never forgot them. The comments chewed away at my brain until I was able to lay them over some reality in my life…then they made sense.

    Eric’s comments are useful to those who like to translate words into Bowen theory. (Which is often useful when sharing ideas with folks learning the theory and those of us who try to teach it.) His comments almost read like poetry as well.

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