Review of Madonna, Complex by Jen Stewart Fueston (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020)
Reviewed by Amy Nemecek
Motherhood can be more complex than we expect. In the empty ache of longing to be mothers, we sometimes forget we want to be anything else. In the frenetic fulfilled desires of motherhood, we often set aside dreams of being anything else. And when we work or serve or play apart from our role as mothers, we feel guilt for wanting to pursue anything else.
In her first full-length collection, Madonna, Complex, Jen Stewart Fueston inhabits the spaces where these complexities collide. Some of these poems first appeared in her chapbook titled Latch, which I also highly recommend. All of them will resonate in the hearts of those who are mothers or who long to be mothers.
The collection is divided into four sections. Much of first two sections is an exploration of life before children, with themes of freedom and travel and the wonder of encountering different cultures. Part 3 turns inward, giving readers a window into the disappointment and grief of infertility and miscarriage, as expressed through poems such as “Trying to Conceive” and “What the Mother Says on Birthdays.” It then moves on to “Latch,” “Night Shift,” and “Trying to Get My Body Back,” which show that motherhood isn’t always an Instagrammable delight. Part 4 turns outward as the poet yearns for a world set right and nurtures her children to be the change she hopes to see.
As the volume’s title suggests, a number of the poems incorporate imagery of the Virgin Mary. They are poignant allusions to a woman who understood better than anyone the paradox of joy and agony that comes with bearing and nurturing children: She bends, a heavy blossom. Her body / a parentheses, she curves away from glory, like we all do (from “The Virgin, Home from the Mall”). They express the bittersweet tension of wanting our children to grow up whilst wishing they could remain small and protected from hurt:
I look at him and see the years ahead
when everything he tries to hold
will slip away.
Learning again from him how to want
to gather everything,
and the play the water makes
as we let it go. (from “Bath Time”)
In “Pablo C. Tiersten, 38, Kansas City,” which Fueston wrote as part of the Lament for the Dead project in 2015, she again draws on the Madonna and child imagery to lament a man killed in a clash with law enforcement. The poem closes with this meaningful allusion to the Pieta:
Newsprint’s the first small box the dead are made
to lie in . . .
Yesterday you still moved under our common sky. Today I found
your years’ old photo of the Virgin Mother, and your capslock praise
of LOVE HER. She will shroud you now in deep blue robes, your body
laid across her lap. For just this very moment, you’re her only son.
Perhaps my favorite poem in Madonna, Complex is one I encountered in the wild, when it first appeared in The Christian Century. “The Interior of Oude Kerk, Amsterdam” is an ekphrastic look at the painter’s plain Madonna, the middle-class Dutch version of divinity. I felt a kinship with the exhausted huisvrouw who poses for the artist while children pull at her skirts and the baby grows heavy and her mind ticks off all the things she has to do before she lies down on her bed at last, unwraps / her hair from its linen halo and finally sleeps.
Not all the poems in this collection have motherhood as their subject, though. Fueston also explores the broken places in our world. Her empathy is evident in poems like “To a Friend, Lonely in the Fall”:
In fall at least the world doesn’t lie to you
about dying, might even convince you can
do it beautifully . . .
. . . Because love is not a fullness, it’s an
ache. Because one God I’ve known has loved me most
when He took everything away. The stark tree stripped
knows every name the wind goes by.
She also protests injustice—though not always in the way we might envision activism. For Fueston, mothering itself can be a form of protest. “To the Women Marching, from a Mother at Home” is part lullaby, part battle cry that, even though she cannot be physically present on the front lines of the fight, she will march alongside through the nurture and training of her own child: Remember us with you, we are the rear-guard. / I am carrying him like a banner, feel him / cutting his teeth on my curdled milk. / I am sharpening him like an arrow.
These protest poems have their origins in recent events. For example, the Lament for the Dead project referenced above is based on a real individual. And in “Upon Seeing a Photograph of Christine Blasey Ford,” a poem straight from the headlines of 2018, Fueston writes honestly, insistently:
Every day we’re desperate for icons worthy of
our prayers. Her steady rendering of memory reminds me
no ordinary woman ever tried to be a saint. Who would
choose to be believed in when she’d rather be believed?
Fueston’s images are genuine, never forced, and there is true depth to her words. Her voice resonates compassion and longing and hope:
I light the wick of marrow that I carry
with me everywhere, but cannot form
a prayer, just hold my heart
out like a bucket, like an unrung bell.
Love is realest in journeying,
indistinguishable from motion
transporting us between our destinations. (from “Wild Leaven, Taos”)
Poetry is the language of hope, and hope is what drives us—as mothers, as writers, as activists—to live out our callings and make this world a better place. I’m truly grateful for this collection of hope at such a time as this.
Jen Stewart Fueston is the author of two chapbooks, Visitations (2015) and Latch (2019). Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net and has appeared widely in publications such as Ruminate, Mom Egg Review, and The Christian Century. She has taught writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder, as well as internationally in Hungary, Turkey, and Lithuania. She lives in Longmont, Colorado with her husband and two young sons.
Book Reviewer: Amy Nemecek has loved words from an early age. Her poetry, prose, and photography have appeared in Whale Road Review, The Sunlight Press, Windhover, 3288 Review, Mothers Always Write, Snapdragon, and Indiana Voice Journal. Amy works as a book editor and lives in West Michigan with her husband, son, and two cats. When she isn’t working with words, she enjoys taking long walks in nature and traveling with her family.