Zora Cross (1890-1964)
Proto-feminist, love lyricist
Zora Cross was born in 1890, at Eagle Farm, Brisbane when that area was mostly farmland. She was educated at Gympie and Ipswich and moved to Sydney when she was 15.
Like many of the poets featured on this site, she studied teaching. But she was forced to give up teaching after she fell pregnant, apparently out of wedlock. The child later died, and she suffered at the hands of two further ill starred love affairs (one of which produced a child) before meeting the enduring love of her life, David McKee Wright, who was then the editor of the Bulletin Red Page. Together they had two children, but they never legally married.
Their affair and the complications from it scandalised the Sydney literary scene, and McKee Wright was gradually eased out of the Bulletin. Cross earned a living as an actress, and by freelance journalism in publications including the Brisbane Courier, a forerunner of today’s Courier Mail.
During the early years of the first world war she taught elocution in Brisbane, and the first of her 5 volumes of poetry, A Song of Mother Love, was published in Brisbane in 1917. According to Miller and Macartney, the ‘greater part of her poetry consists of self- revelation in, and meditation of, the experience of love’. Dorothy Green notes that the 60 love sonnets in this book were ‘the first sustained expression in Australian poetry, of erotic experience from a woman’s point of view.’ This might sound exciting, but in fact the poems in this and subsequent books when read today are difficult to immediately understand; they are full of classical allusion, and mix religious language and expressions of self love with archaisms.
Her poems work best for a contemporary reader when Cross speaks directly and confidently:
‘I hold the cup that Circe held
When man to brutish beast she spelled.
The wine is red. The wine is sweet
With passion’s sense and joy complete.’
However, her poems seem to contain elements of both guilt and submission which can be disturbing:
From Man and Woman
‘I, too, once couched upon a harlot’s bed.
Men knew my body as a place of joy,
Felt where the muscles yielded balm of sense
For the coarse feeders to find plunder there.’
Her work is more engaging when she moves away from love as a subject matter. Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy,(1921) is a moving memorial to her brother, who died in the first world war, aged 19:
‘…… In every man there is a great, new world-
Perhaps a glorious race.
How can we tell the hero that war hurled
To death bore not Christ’s face?
How can we tell what nobler nations lie
Now on the fields of France,
What unborn masters of creation cry
Through murdered, white romance?’
The poems that have been selected for this website show her variety. Australia in England is an example of a sub-genre of first world war poetry: that of the dying soldier reminiscing of home. ( For example Kenneth Slessor’s first published poem, Goin’, takes the same theme). Books is a disguised love lyric for Wright, and The Beauty of Life is an undisguised love lyric. Click here, or on the links to the right of this page to read these poems.
After Wright’s death in 1928 she was once again alone. She struggled on as a writer, publishing no more books of poetry, but remaining true to her craft. Today she is almost completely forgotten.
Best book to buy: Cross, Z The Lilt of Life, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1918.
Miller, E Morris, and Macartney, FT, Australian Literature, A bibliography to 1938, extended to 1950, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1956, at p130.