Richard Solly knew firsthand about illness and human suffering, having battled Crohn’s disease, cancer and alcoholism during his lifetime. In fact, he came so close to death about 25 years ago that he had his last rites read to him — twice.
Those experiences were the raw material of his poetry, in which he explored themes such as pain, life, death and the afterlife.
“He defied death and defied suffering,” said his friend and fellow poet Jay White of Deephaven. “It allowed him to gain an understanding of the essence of what life is about and what it means.”
And it gave him a unique, authentic voice as a poet like no other, he said.
In his poem “The Body Reproaches the Soul,” Solly wrote: “Even in the afterlife, / the body’s not excluded. It doesn’t turn to ash / but reassembles, cell by cell. Then it stands / on tiptoe, picks peaches from a branch. / Don’t panic. I’ll carry you on my shoulders / into a garden; everyone we have loved will follow, / wearing the familiar flannel shirts, jeans, / lace collar. Dogs will bark, leaves will fall. / It will be a good day like any other.”
Solly, a longtime St. Paul resident who touched many lives through his poetry and through his teaching, died May 21 from aspiration pneumonia, which was the result of radiation treatments he had received a decade earlier.
He was 68.
While he did not actively promote himself, Solly received many grants and awards over the years, including several Minnesota State Arts Board grants, a Bush Foundation fellowship, and a Loft McKnight Artist Fellowship.
“He was very underrated as a poet here in Minnesota — not by the people in charge of giving grants — but perhaps by the larger community,” said White. “He was not very keen on sending out his work to magazines, but nearly every time he sent his work out to a fellowship or award, he won it.”
Solly penned a few books over the years. The most well known was “From Where the Rivers Come,” a book of his poems that was published by Holy Cow! Press in 2006. White said he pushed Solly to finish the book since he had never published a substantial collection of his poems until then other than some chapbooks.
“Every single poem is a stunner,” White said. “He was about trying to make sense of his life.”
Solly’s poems, White said, “were a way to counterpoint the cards he was dealt.”
Born in Cleveland in 1947, Solly received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Montana. He later earned two master’s degrees, one from Iowa State University and another from Hazelden Graduate School of Addiction Studies.
He ended up in Minnesota on a whim while driving back from Montana with a friend, said his daughter, Rose Solly of Woodbury.
“They didn’t plan on staying here, but they found a place to live and did house painting and shingling, and he never left,” she said.
Solly was sober the last 30 years of his life, but his experience with addiction led him to study and work at Hazelden.
He was a senior acquisitions editor for its books division for 15 years. He retired a few years ago.
He also taught creative writing at the Loft Literary Center and was a guest teacher at schools around the region.
“He was a tough guy,” his daughter said. “And he had a dry sense of humor. If you didn’t get it, you might be offended. But he made a lot of people laugh. He was a charmer.”
Besides his daughter, survivors include two sisters, Rita Solly and Joan Daly of Rocky River, Ohio, and a granddaughter.
Services have been held.