Poetic License: You Could Have Just Left

In the latest addition to our poetry series, Sarah Caulfield shares their personal memory of returning to live in Blackpool after a nuclear breakup and interweaves it with the sensory details of homecoming, painful in their familiarity. Main image: artwork by the author.

The title is verbatim quote from someone who gave their view on the poet’s personal history, and it became the thread linking the ideas the poem explores together. It illustrates how unsympathetic we are to women and people of marginalised genders and identities, especially when they do not fit our idea of a perfect victim. You Could Have Just Left makes up part of an ongoing project of the same name.

You Could Have Just Left
by Sarah Caulfield

The motorway rest stop is empty
this late at night and my face is sickness.
My hometown is rising with the dawn,
All crying birds, salt air, and hollow.
I am afraid, I tell you, over and over
I’m so afraid of what comes next,
because by all rights
I should be dead. By all rights I should be dead.
But days pass, and I am not dead.

Time is always being experienced as a collective agreement.
We have all said it will be five o’clock now, and when
It is five o’clock, you can go home. Home, as noun,
is the place you live, but also is not, depending on
extraneous factors.
One day you might be told your home
is no longer your home.

Question: if you had twenty minutes to leave
Your house, knowing you could never return,
what would you pick to take with you?
Here is a bag. Your time starts now.
No, we will not elaborate.
Answer: No answer is ever good enough to have suffered.
No answer will ever make people feel
anything but uncomfortable.

Returning, after all, is the present participle
of the word return, and people like us
Don’t go places like that.
We don’t end up in places like that.

So when you tell me I could have just left,
I want to tell you about this, because
You want to say should, but you know
That if you say it so clearly,
you will have to hear yourself.
You will have to hear that you want
to believe you would have made better choices,
And that things like this don’t happen to people like us.

So when you tell me this, instead,
I want to tell you about the dawn of the morning
That first day back, mired in the past even as I was pulled
Inexorably into the present, pulling free, fearful,
as though dying in tar, that single suffocating bag at my side.
I want to tell you that all my life people had told me
that the only way to get ahead was to get away,
and there I was, having listened,
Still here, still watching the familiar skyline etch itself into sunrise,
all black iron, sea-eaten stone: still alive.
I want to tell you about how that first inhale, salt-steeped,
Settled into my lungs, and expanded, and with it I expanded,
How the world that had been a cage showed a glimpse of
Something, anything, to grasp onto.
How I reached out, unbidden, through the bars towards it:
How, for the first time in a long time,
I wondered why I had gone away at all.

But I can’t be bothered to tell you.
There is no way to explain home as noun here, is there?
Because people like you make better choices
I already know you’ll never understand.

Sarah Caulfield is a Blackpool-born and based visual artist, creative and author of Spine (2017) and Discomfort (2021) both published by Headmistress Press. Twice-nominated for a Pushcart Prize, their work has appeared in Lavender Review, Indolent Books, Voicemail Poems, and Tokyo Poetry Journal, among others. Sarah’s work was accepted into the National Poetry Library Archive in 2023.

Sarah has have lived in Poland, Germany, Japan and Korea. Their previous work includes being a shabbos goy, KFC checkout girl and children’s birthday party entertainer. They are currently working on their third chapbook, focusing on legacy, trauma and rebirth.

Sarah is donating a collection of her published works and three one to one poetry sessions to the Reclaim SLAG International Women’s Day raffle. Find out more here.

Read more from our Poetic License series here.

Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
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