Poetry highlight of the month; Pamela White Hadas, Beside Herself: Pocahontas to Patty Hearst, by Pamela White Hadas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 241 pp. $12.95 hardcover. $7.95 paperback.
Don't let the flaunting subtitle scare you away. Pamela White Hadas's fourth collection is a unique achievement in contemporary writing and rewards a reader's attention with a generous blend of insight, wit, and well-crafted poetry. ''Beside Herself'' is a collection of personal poems that focuses on a procession of history's notable women. The cast of characters ranges from Pocahontas and Betsy Ross to Jean Harris and Patty Hearst. Each character speaks her part - a single poem or a long series of pieces - and for each, the poet creates a distinct and believable voice. Their stories combine historical insight and poetic license into a package that consistently entertains and surprises. The sheer breadth of the monologues displays the poet's tremendous powers of invention.
The poems appear to be uncomplicated, immersed in the richness of intonation and dialect. But running crosscurrent to the narratives is a careful latticework of poetic design - a sometimes intuitive, sometimes formal use of rhyme, sound-play, and charged language. Although narrative verse can tolerate more indulgence in the poet's performance than short lyrics are able to, there are sections in ''Beside Herself'' that are overly long or excessively artful. But on the whole, Ms. Hadas has re-energized the genre of dramatic verse and proved it is capable of being as contemporary, clear eyed, and full of excitement as any work being written today.
Here is just one of the voices Ms. Hadas has styled into her collection: Betsy Ross after her first meeting with General Washington. Betsy Ross in Thirteen States of Mind No. 1 Some say I made it up. Some say not so. So what? I know that I relive the day - late May - and may forever - when I met you with Uncle Ross and Rich Rob. Secretly, you'd brought me a little piecework to be done for love and money. I put the kettle on (for hardly any tea) and we sat down hush hush - and you brought out the general plan for a banner, this smudgy doodle you'd made - not bad. At first I didn't like the a- symmetry of it. ''Too many seams,'' I said, ''and who wants six-point stars?'' I showed how they could be cut to five: one fold, one snip. I won. You got your way about the stripes. Tomorrow, then.