The cover of Cathy Perkins' biography of a neglected Australian woman poet re-produces a photograph of her subject taken in 1919.
Resembling a little a classic femme fatale, Zora Cross cocks her head, looking quizzical, as though expecting a tough question but ready with a tart reply. She seems determined to intrigue and beguile an observer, just as does Perkins with her readers.
Zora Cross is now scarcely remembered (at least before this book), especially compared with her more thrusting contemporary, Mary Gilmore. During her life, Cross' reputation rested most on her poetry collection, 'Songs of Love and Life' (1917), specifically on those poems' treatment of sexual desire.
"Now you are here/Your body on my own" is explicit enough, though not compared with "I give myself to you, and do whate'er/You will with what is yours". Only an intrepid poet would publish such "a sweet and wild surprise" in the most terrible year of an appalling war.
After a childhood in "as hardwood house in the bush with a splintery verandah", Cross moved to Sydney (1890), worked as a teacher and actress, wrote poems, an elegy, novels and an early introduction to Australian literature, and lived until 1964.
Perkins shrewdly assesses that Cross' life, particularly her serial misadventures with partners and colleagues, will interest readers as much as detailed exegeses of her plots and motifs.
As one example, Cross "mislaid" her first husband. In addition, Perkins provides context and colour for Cross' professional circle.
She includes, for instance, compelling portraits of a grumpy Norman Lindsay and a mute Henry Lawson. Cross notes that her "challenge wasn't in finding material but doing justice to it".
A reader might finish Perkins' biography without being sure whether Cross' poetry deserves this graceful, thoughtful exhumation. I actually prefer Cross' summary commentary on places, whether Brisbane ("full of dullness") or London fog ("just like bush-fire smoke, only cold").
No reader, however, could reasonably question Cross' resolution and her resilience in the face of rejection, tragedy and poverty. She possessed in ample measure what another poet might call "soul".
Cathy Perkins has assembled and assimilated a trove of material. She even records that archives hold a 1963 copy of Cross' "TV Week", with programs marked to be watched.
Perkins' personal engagement with her subject is distinctly close but rarely cloying. Zora Cross is here indisputably well-served.
- The Shelf Life of Zora Cross, by Cathy Perkins. Monash University Press, $29.95.