Your uncle’s story
(after Witi Ihimaera)
The first thing you need to know about your uncle is
there was a time when he didn’t know what to do
with love—when to sing it, how to evade the sting
in its bite. He felt the world was heavy with love—
it should’ve been his guiding light, but your uncle was
stubborn, too proud to admit he needed directions.
Or perhaps he was too scared to learn its meaning,
having witnessed the pain it could inflict on those
like him, men who knew better than to show the world
the colours they kept under their raincoats.
What your uncle thought to be love was sometimes
a diversion, a trick he played on himself to be part
of someone else’s story. Instead of fireworks, he made
do with warm bruises pulsing in time with summer
sighs, reminders of shaken confidence and late-night
walks through an indifferent city, fumbling towards
a happy ending. Sometimes what we crave becomes
a self-fulfilling tragedy of pleading with whichever
greater power will grant us the grace to stumble
through life as a liability to only ourselves.
When we confess a truth but mean the opposite—
when we reach for comfort but find ourselves
in danger. When we miss the taste of our youth but
our memory betrays us in the act of excavation.
When the story of your uncle is told, look up at
the moon in its cradle, flooding the night with
endless wonder. When the story is a cautionary tale
but also reincarnation, crossing back on itself to
learn the first word again. When that word is a word
pressed into every hand raised asking to be named.
The story continues—sometimes with green lights
all the way, sometimes interrupted with a kiss
your uncle would come to regret. He held on
too closely to these detours as proof that
he had sentenced himself to the loneliest time—
that his capacity to be happy was tainted by
who he spent his nights with and who never
amounted to more than just a passing stranger.
And so it goes—as morning collects birdsong, each
blunt revelation gathered to form a threshold.
There are facts to forget and stray lines to gather into
an organised mess. Patterns may repeat
but the hope is for the outcome to surprise—that’s why
your uncle could never escape love in all
its devotions—for you and the branches that carried
us here, for fallen leaves playacting as
a constellation of a world before solace. You must
believe in love—if only to know the story
of your uncle is one of many returns—of learning
that joy need not be kept in darkness.
The memories will become family legends, and
one day they will be all you have of
your uncle. Maybe when you’re older you’ll
have questions to ask about which threads
to tie together to make a rope strong enough
to keep the line between past and present
taut. Don’t let the knots slip; don’t let doubt set in.
What’s passed down doesn’t need to be
a burden or a justification—it can be the space
in which an entire life blooms.
Ask your parents how
they unravelled the world
before search engines.
What did they do with
the burden of the un/known?
Water tells the story of time
and the weather makes
a space for fear to curve
between selfish joys.
There is never an absence
of queries, never a question
too bright for the mouth
of the cave. Ask your parents
how many times they returned
to ground zero as a way to
unearth belief in themselves.
Once upon a time there was
a sky for every hopeful glance.
Decades have passed; the world
is still too much for safe-keeping.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Tse is Aotearoa | New Zealand’s Poet Laureate for 2022-24. He is the author of three poetry collections published by AUP: How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, HE’S SO MASC, and Super Model Minority. He and Emma Barnes edited Out Here: An Anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ Writers from Aotearoa.