One of the central questions that the multitude of suffering voices that speak in the poems ask in their interrogation of history is “Where is God’s place in a world that is filled with so much suffering?” How, the poems ask, are we to regard a God who seems content to witness suffering rather than alleviate it?
Another core theme of The Angel of History is the responsibility of the Christian poet who witnesses suffering: Should the poet embrace it or keep a distance that allows objective testimony? Where is the dividing line between the impulse to record and the movement to take suffering and transform it for the entertainment of others? Forché writes, “Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end,” and she goes further to ask what the ethical implications are of art arising from such acts.
One of the poems with which The Angel of History is often compared is T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), which attempted a similar task of making sense out of unimaginable horror and its coexistence with the vacuity of modern life and what part faith or spirituality should play. Like Eliot before her, Forché contemplates the position of the spiritual person when confronted with the banality and horror that make up modern existence and tries to determine whether the effort should be to distance oneself from or fully engage with the horror.
In the end, the act of witnessing and the art created by that act of witnessing become the only coherent and meaningful narrative that can be rescued from the chaos of history and the only sign of God’s presence in a world that seems a collision of catastrophic moments. The horrors can be transformed, or so Forché seems to insist, and that act is the only possible spiritual practice in the face of evil.